What a month! We bore witness to a violent insurgency on the Capitol, a second impeachment, and the historic inauguration of President Joe Biden and Vice-President Kamala Harris. President Trump impeded the transition, snubbed the inauguration, and left his successor with an array of crises. On immigration, Trump attempted to finalize a number of last-ditch policies, cementing his legacy as the most anti-immigrant president in modern times. But starting on January 20, the immigration initiatives emerging from the White House radically changed course: as promised, President Biden immediately sent an immigration bill that includes a path to citizenship for the undocumented to Congress and signed a host of consequential executive orders that begin the process of undoing four years of damage and redefining America’s approach to immigration. Here’s what you need to know about the early days of the Biden-Harris Administration’s immigration agenda.
The U.S. Citizenship Act
The U.S. Citizenship Act is a bold, carefully designed bill that offers the common-sense policy solutions America needs: it responsibly and humanely addresses the root causes of migration, humanizes and strengthens border management, and creates a clear process for contributing undocumented immigrants to earn citizenship. Specifically, important measures include:
- An 8-year path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants currently in the U.S.
- An avenue for DACA and TPS recipients and eligible farmworkers to immediately apply for permanent legal residency.
- A $4 billion aid package to El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras that addresses the root causes of migration coupled with new systems that enable Central Americans to seek legal protection in the U.S. or partner countries from within their home countries.
- Funding for smarter border management that leverages enhanced technology rather than growing the already massive force of militarized border patrol agents.
- Improved technology and additional training for immigration judges to expedite cases and improve the court backlog.
- Expanded access to family- and employment-based visas by raising or eliminating (respectively) the per-country visa caps, ending discrimination against LGBTQ+ families, and clearing existing backlogs.
- Prohibiting discrimination based on religion and limiting presidential authority to unilaterally ban nationals from some countries and increasing the annual allotment of diversity visas from 55,000 to 80,000.
The release of this historic bill on day one demonstrates an unequivocal commitment by the Biden-Harris Administration to rebuild a system that has suffered decades of neglect and four years of deliberate destruction. Unfortunately, a number of Senate Republicans have trashed the bill, falsely characterizing it as offering “total amnesty, zero enforcement” without even reading it, portending significant challenges ahead.
It will soon become clear whether the Senate minority is open to meaningful engagement and negotiation or intends to repeatedly obstruct legislation until the 2022 midterms. Advocates and pro-immigrant legislators will not accept an indefinite blockade of the administration’s immigration agenda through abuse of the filibuster. We will pursue permanent status for the greatest number of undocumented immigrants possible, starting with Dreamers, TPS recipients, farmworkers, and pandemic essential workers. If that means reforming the filibuster or using other procedural tools like budget reconciliation, we will push for those measures.
100-Day Pause on Deportations
For the first time since its creation, the Department of Homeland Security paused deportations to conduct a comprehensive review of all enforcement practices and to reset the agency’s policies. The memorandum announcing this initiative reflected a clear understanding by the Biden-Harris Administration that enforcement efforts over the last four years have failed to live up to our basic values and have spiraled into a cruel, counterproductive, and incoherent collection of practices.
Already, this historic move has been met with legal challenges, which rely in part on a set of midnight-hour restrictive policies created to obstruct Biden’s immigration agenda. In the final weeks of the Trump Administration, then-acting director of DHS Ken Cuccinelli and Texas Governor Greg Abbott signed an agreement that required DHS to consult with the state of Texas and consider their views before taking action. These agreements, known as the Sanctuary for Americans First Enactment (SAFE), say that Arizona, Indiana, Louisiana, and Texas are entitled to a 180-day consultation period before executive immigration enforcement policies take effect. Shortly before the inauguration, DHS officials said they had entered into nine of these agreements, mostly with states.
The State of Texas filed a lawsuit challenging the deportation pause on several grounds (including that the memorandum violated the SAFE agreement), none of which should pass legal muster. And yet a lone federal district court judge in Texas appointed by President Trump absurdly agreed that Texas was likely to prevail and ordered a temporary restraining order for two weeks. His decision does not rely on the SAFE agreements, but it also does not reach a conclusion on their obvious unconstitutionality. During the injunction, the judge has ordered DHS not to abide by the memorandum. The judge does not, however, have the power to order individuals to be physically removed from the U.S., calling into question the practical impact of his ruling beyond creating confusion in the agency.
Day one executive orders
After the inauguration, President Biden sat in the Oval Office and worked his way through a stack of executive orders. Six were immigration-related and mandated that the United States:
- End new enrollments into the Remain in Mexico program — a first step toward ending the program altogether and allowing those currently in the program to seek safety from within the United States.
- Rescind the Muslim and African bans.
- Reinstate DACA in full.
- End the border wall construction by ending the national emergency that diverted federal funding to the construction effort.
- Ensure that all undocumented immigrants are included in census data used to reapportion congressional districts.
- Extend Deferred Enforced Departure for Liberians until June 30, 2022.
Each of these policies will directly impact millions of people; each is a monumental and hard-won victory.
Migrants head north, hoping for reform
In the days leading up to the inauguration, thousands of Honduran asylum seekers headed toward the U.S.-Mexico border. On January 16, military troops and police in Guatemala forcefully halted some 6,000 migrants headed north — the latest of several large groups of migrants who have attempted to travel toward the United States but have been violently turned back before they reach the border. Migrants are fleeing the devastation brought by twin hurricanes that hit the region in November, crushing unemployment, and unrelenting violence. They are left with no option but to seek refuge elsewhere, no matter how bleak their prospects are for obtaining legal protections. Our immigration system must include both an array of legal pathways for those who choose to migrate and a plan to address the root causes of migration so that no one is forced to leave their home.
Following the most recent encounter, Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador publicly urged President Biden to pass major immigration reforms to meet the rising desperation of thousands of displaced Central Americans. This is sure to be a major challenge for the Biden-Harris Administration, and quick, sweeping change will be required.
Now that President Trump has left the White House for the last time, we finally have the political room to push forward on immigration, rather than merely trying to mitigate the harm. President Biden inherited many immigration crises: a decimated asylum system paired with extraordinary demand for refuge; families who have spent years apart as collateral damage in Trump’s crusade against immigrants and immigration; ICE detainees who are contracting coronavirus at a rate approximately 13 times greater than the general population with no vaccine access in sight. But we finally have the opportunity to work with the President, Vice-President and Congress to forge ahead, and it is an opportunity we can’t afford to pass up.