How Has the Immigration Process Changed During the Biden Administration?

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The United States is a nation built by immigrants — not only in its economic foundations but in its idiosyncratic pillars. That is why, during Immigrant Heritage Month, it is important to take stock of the legislative changes that have taken place in recent years.

We are no longer talking so much about the former administration in the White House and its erratic misrepresentation of tropes but the implications in the long run.

While the years leading up to Joe Biden’s inauguration as President went down in history as a dark time for immigrants and activists alike, how do things look today?

What are the Biden administration’s strategies, has it delivered on its promises, and what can we expect in the coming months?

Policies put in place today will have repercussions in the long run, and it is at the very least responsible for educating ourselves about it.

In brief, knowledge is power. Knowing what is going on and becoming familiar with the current administration’s goals is key to creating a better future for all citizens, including those on a path to citizenship in America.

We’re on the brink of a new era in immigration, with new, effective policies in place that can actually fix a broken immigration system. As Senator Bob Menendez, Democrat of New Jersey, said in a recent virtual news conference as reported by the New York Times, “we’re here today because last November 80 million Americans voted against Donald Trump and against everything he stood for. They voted to restore common sense, compassion, and competence in our government. And part of that mandate is fixing our immigration system, which is a cornerstone of Trump’s hateful horror show.”

On Zero Tolerance

The immigration stance of the previous administration is no secret to anyone. Its policies were more hostile than any other administration in the country’s contemporary history, and its zero-tolerance policies further complicated matters.

Beyond that, immigrants who came to the United States seeking asylum were unable to apply for protection, were deported to the country from which they were fleeing, and were separated from their children at the border, leading to a devastating human rights crisis on our soil.

Ironically, the Trump administration was living up to its campaign promises.

Very early on in his administration, Trump began following through on his campaign promises. He banned travel from seven predominantly Muslim countries. He imposed a rule denying green cards to immigrants, and he began construction on his prized project – his signature border wall along the U.S. / Mexico border that was designed to keep illegal immigrants out of our country. He argued that this wall would effectively disrupt the “criminals and smugglers” and keep those border crossers out of the U.S.

In addition, under its “Zero Tolerance” policy, the Department of Justice prosecuted all migrants crossing the border without documents and made no exceptions — not for families, not for asylum seekers in need of protection from dangers and threats back home, not for children or minors. 

Families were separated at the border, and children were stripped away from their parents. Reports show that more than 3,000 immigrant children were separated from their families while trying to immigrate to the United States. However, reports indicate that that number might be much closer to 5,500 families separated at the border.

The Trump administration also deported hundreds of thousands of illegal immigrants. A 2020 report shows that during fiscal 2018, Customs and Border Protection (CBP) and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) “together carried out 337,287 removals of unauthorized immigrants, a 17% increase from the previous year, according to the Department of Homeland Security. 

In addition, recent reports show that during Trump’s time in office, ICE deported at least 348 migrant parents separated from their children “without documenting that those parents wanted to leave” their children behind in the U.S., according to a new report from an internal government watchdog, reported by NBC News

The very term “zero tolerance” sounds threatening and very anti-American. And while some of his policies have been and will be reversed by the Biden administration, not all damage can be forgotten. 

“The damage inflicted in the meantime on people of all stripes — legal immigrants, undocumented immigrants, asylum seekers and more — will not be so quickly reversed and in some cases can’t be reversed,” explains Aaron Reichlin-Melnick of the American Immigration Council. “There are people who died because of Trump immigration policies,” he told the Associated Press

Righting the Wrongs on Immigration

President Biden made several lofty promises during his presidential campaign surrounding the last administration’s immigration policies and plans to modernize and humanize the path to citizenship for immigrants in the U.S. 

Shortly after being sworn into office, he revoked several of Trump’s immigration restrictions. He lifted the travel ban from 13 countries, many of them Muslim-majority or African countries. He also offered Temporary Protected Status (TPS), a protection from deportation, to up to 300,000 Venezuelan immigrants in the U.S. He expanded pathways of legal immigration from Central America. In an effort to show his dedication to modernizing the broken immigration system in this country, President Biden sent an immigration bill to Congress on his first official day in office. 

“The legislation modernizes our immigration system and prioritizes keeping families together, growing our economy, responsibly managing the border with smart investments, addressing the root causes of migration from Central America, and ensuring that the United States remains a refuge for those fleeing persecution.” 

Just last month, Senator Menendez and Representative Linda T. Sánchez, Democrat of California, unveiled immigration legislation called the “U.S. Citizenship Act of 2021,” which is modeled after the proposal Mr. Biden announced on January 21st, his first day in office. 

The proposal outlines an eight-year plan to citizenship, through which immigrants will be allowed to live and work in the U.S. for five years, but they will have to pay taxes and pass background checks. They can then apply for a green card, which would grant them permanent status in this country, and after three more years, they can be granted citizenship. This new path to citizenship intends to make it easier for people and families to immigrate to the United States and aims to increase foreigners who are able to live and work in this country.

Compared to the previous administration’s policies, which made it harder for people to live and work in the U.S., this new plan is a breath of fresh air full of hope and promise for immigrants coming from countries all over the world.

President Biden is also tackling immigrant arrests. Since rescinding Trump’s policies, ICE has issued new guidelines instructing agents to prioritize the detention of immigrants who threaten national security rather than all immigrants here without documents.

In addition, the Department of Homeland Security also intends to issue a rule to safeguard the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program from a court challenge, thus protecting hundreds of thousands of undocumented immigrants brought to the U.S. as minors from being deported. These new protections are all designed to make America once again a safe haven for refugees and a better future for immigrants.

While many of the Biden administration’s policies are headed in the right direction, not all of his campaign promises have been achieved. President Biden halted border wall construction, but he has yet to end for-profit immigration detention centers. In addition, Mr. Biden finally terminated Mr. Trump’s limit on refugee resettlement, which was at a historic low of a 15,000-person cap, but it took time. Under the Biden administration, there has also been a record number of unaccompanied children at the southern border, with nearly 19,000 unaccompanied children entering U.S. custody along the southern border in March 2021 alone, according to data provided to CBS News

According to the Biden administration, fixing a broken immigration system is a process, not an overnight shift. The White House explained that they are focused on “rebuilding” the U.S. immigration system and reversing the hundreds of immigration changes made in the past four years. “We’re taking our time to do it right,” the White House official told CBS News. “We’ve had to sort of crawl out of a bit of a mess from the previous administration.”

The hope is that this new blueprint, the “D.H.S. Plan to Restore Trust in Our Legal Immigration System,” will attempt to reopen the country to immigrants and restore America’s faith in the immigration system. “There are significant changes that need to be made to really open up all avenues of legal immigration,” explains Felicia Escobar Carrillo, the chief of staff at U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, of the efforts to reverse Mr. Trump’s agenda. “In the same way that they took a broad-stroke approach to closing off avenues, I think we want to take a broad approach toward opening up the legal avenues that have always been available but that they tried to put roadblocks up on.”