For first time in years, local immigrants see hope, not fear, coming from White House proposals
Immigrants and their advocates in Southern California are excited and hopeful about the prospects of sweeping immigration reform that could come shortly after President-elect Joe Biden is sworn into office.
The new president is expected to reverse a slew of Trump administration policies, and introduce legislation that could give millions of people living in the country illegally a chance to become citizens after an eight-year process.
Some actions are expected quickly, via executive order and other policy moves. They include reversing the ban on travel to the United States from some Muslim majority countries, and a directive to reunite immigrant children who in 2018 were separated from their families by the Trump administration and have yet to be reunified.
Other moves could take longer. These include everything from restoring U.S. protections for asylum seekers, to implementing foreign policies that might address some of the issues that drive Central American immigrants to trek to the United States.
Immigrants and their advocates said they welcome an approach to immigration policy that they view as a humane switch from practices that demonized immigrants.
“Immigrants have been under assault,” said Ally Bolour, a Los Angeles-based attorney who serves on the board of the American Immigration Lawyers Association. “It’s a breath of fresh air that Biden and (Vice President-elect Kamala) Harris have chosen immigration reform as one of their first topics.”
But for people who supported Donald Trump, in part because of hard-line approach to illegal immigration, the prospect of the Biden administration undoing Trump’s work is foolhardy.
“Biden’s immigration plan is wrongheaded and seems to ignore the suffering of the unemployed American worker, U.S. foster kids, the disabled Americans and the needs of veterans,” said Robin Hvidston, who leads “We the people rising,” a Claremont-based group against illegal immigration.
“On day one, he should be focused on the American people, the voters of this nation, and not those in our country illegally,” Hvidston added.
Republican lawmakers on Tuesday opposed Biden’s forthcoming immigration plan as massive amnesty for people in the U.S. illegally, underscoring that the measure faces an uphill fight in a Congress that Democrats control just narrowly, the Associated Press reported.
Unlike previous immigration reform proposals, Biden’s plan omits any trade-off of enhanced border security, a feature typically offered as a way to woo GOP support. “A mass amnesty with no safeguards and no strings attached is a nonstarter,” said Iowa Sen. Chuck Grassley, the top Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee.
Donald Trump, first as a candidate and later as president, made illegal immigration a top priority. That later slipped into limiting legal immigration. Among other things, Trump-era rules dramatically reduced the number of refugees and asylum seekers allowed in the country and forced applicants to wait in Mexico while their cases are adjudicated.
During its four years, the Trump administration took more than 400 actions on immigration and has “dramatically reshaped the U.S. immigration system,” wrote policy analysts Sarah Pierce and Jessica Bolter of the Migration Policy Institute, a D.C.-based think tank.
“Much of the White House’s immigration agenda has been realized in the form of interlocking measures, with regulatory, policy, and programmatic changes driving towards shared policy goals,” the analysts wrote last summer.
Immigrant-rights advocates acknowledge that undoing some of Trump’s work will be daunting. But they remain optimistic.
“We’re hopeful that the Biden administration will deliver on these promises; that they will restore faith in our country,” said Luz Gallegos, community programs director at Perris-based Training Occupational Development Educating Communities (TODEC) Legal Center.
Gallegos said her organization has heard from residents who are afraid of seeking medical help, even if they believe they have COVID-19, because the Trump administration’s “public charge” policy has deemed using subsidized health care or other resources as reasons for denying future citizenship.
“There’s so much rhetoric and so much fear right now,” Gallegos said.
“Everybody has high hopes and expectations for this administration.”
Count Zuleyma Chazari, who lives with her family in Los Angeles, among the hopeful.
“Finally, after four years of worrying, we will have some peace in our lives.”
Chazari, 25, a senior at the University of Southern California and a teacher’s aide at an elementary school, was brought to the country by her parents from Mexico when she was 8. She can live and work legally in the United States because of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, a program created by President Barack Obama in 2012 to protect immigrants brought to the United States as children. As a DACA recipient, Chazari has a social security number, a work permit and can live without the threat of deportation for two-year renewable periods. Though Biden plans to help DACA recipients, Trump pushed to end the program and the matter is pending before a judge in Texas.
Chazari is especially happy that the new administration has committed to sending an immigration reform package to Congress that will include a citizenship piece for the estimated 11 million people living in the country without legal documentation.
Under the possible legislation, those living in the U.S. as of Jan. 1, 2021, without legal status would have a five-year path to temporary legal status, or a green card, if they pass background checks, pay taxes and fulfill other basic requirements, according to the Associated Press. Once they have a green card, they can pursue citizenship three years later.
For Chazari’s family, which includes a brother born in this country, it could mean her Mexican-born parents can try to get better jobs. Her father, she said, is working in a factory that doesn’t offer health benefits and is allowing people who are sick with the coronavirus to come to work, endangering all employees.
“My dad is really smart and he’s hard working,” she said. But he’s limited as to where he can work because he lacks legal residency.
Meanwhile, Chazari and some 650,000 other DACA-holders – including about 200,000 who live in California – could benefit even sooner under the new administration’s reported plan.
Biden and Harris have said they want to provide a faster path to citizenship for DACA holders and others covered under the Temporary Protected Status program. Harris said this month, during an interview on Univision, that the Biden administration plans to grant automatic green cards to immigrants now protected under those programs.
Harris also said the administration hopes to add more immigration judges to deal with a backlog of immigration cases.
Immigration courts across the country are dealing with a backlog of nearly 1.3 million cases, including more than 196,000 in California, according to the Syracuse University-based Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse. Average wait time for a hearing last year was more than two years: 811 days.