As the Trump administration finally starts to cooperate more with the transition process, it’s time to seriously think about what a Joe Biden presidency means for immigration policy.
Looking back to the Obama-Biden years, the White House left a mixed legacy on immigration policy.
In June 2012, the Department of Homeland Security announced the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program. While multiple criteria had to be met to qualify, this Obama administration initiative garnered protection from deportation for more than 800,000 migrants brought to the U.S. before the age of 16.
However, even though recipients could get work authorization and identification from DACA, according to the DHS memo, “deferred action does not confer lawful status upon an individual.” DACA failed to provide a pathway to citizenship, leaving Dreamers vulnerable for repeated Trumpian attacks on their limbo-like legal status.
The Obama-Biden administration also shifted immigration enforcement priorities. The executive branch made a point to gear enforcement toward criminal threats to the country instead of those deemed to be “easy targets.” Former President Barack Obama effectively terminated the workplace raid practice used under the Bush administration.
That being said, Obama deported more people than any other president in U.S. history, removing more than 2.7 million people from the country. Immigrant rights activists labeled him “deporter-in-chief” and called him out for failing to hold true to his campaign promise of immigration reform.
To make matters worse, during the eight years Obama and Biden were in the White House, there was a huge influx in Central American refugees. Instead of viewing this increased displacement as a humanitarian concern and expanding asylum and legal protections, the administration rushed removal hearings, refused to take cases seriously and provided little to no legal assistance in navigating the archaic asylum framework.
Biden now has a chance to follow up on his past administration’s shortcomings. Vice President-elect Kamala Harris may provide the needed sway to enact more progressive migrant protection.
Harris often broke rank with the Obama administration over deportations and has been a leading voice in the Senate opposing Trump’s xenophobic immigration policies. But Harris doesn’t have a perfect record on immigration. As attorney general in California, she supported a San Francisco policy that facilitated the transfer and deportation of young people.
Biden and Harris outlined a plan for “securing our values as a nation of immigrants” on their campaign website. The major focus of the proposal is to reverse Trump’s damage. Biden has already announced the creation of a task force to reunite the families still separated at the border by the Trump administration, a situation that did in fact occur under Obama and Biden, but with less intentionality and frequency.
The Biden-Harris plan also vows to modernize immigration infrastructure, welcome immigrants, recommit to the asylum system and tackle the root causes of irregular migration.
These are all actions that must be taken to move in a more welcoming direction. However, even after all these steps, the nation would be right back where it was under Obama. And as we’ve seen earlier, there are a lot of flaws with this position. Biden and Harris must do more to ensure the protection of the undocumented living in fear of deportation.
“The work is not done,” said Evelyn Sanchez, co-president of Latinos Unidos at IU.
Biden is not a lifesaver. Immigrant activists need to continue to make their voices loud, continue to fight for equal protection and reception into their communities.
Kiki Lin, an immigrant case worker and former Integration Programs intern for the National Immigration Forum in Washington D.C., said she believes the Biden team needs to first address immigration in the context of the pandemic. It only makes sense to halt removal proceedings in order to limit the spread of COVID-19.
“People shouldn’t be leaving during the pandemic,” Lin said.
If Biden and Harris really cherish our nation of immigrants, then they would work to provide citizenship for the nearly 11 million undocumented people living in the country. Doing so would not only provide a seismic boost to the economy, but it would also validate the longstanding vision that paints the U.S. as a land of opportunity, open to be enjoyed by anyone.
It is imperative as Americans that we hold this next administration accountable for the fate of the millions of migrants who help define the soul of the nation. The world is watching.
JP Brenner (he/him) is a senior studying political science and geography. He loves spending time outdoors, away from his phone and is an avid reader.