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Immigration reform is about to become a hot button political issue once again as COVID gets under control

March 16, 2021, 10:00 AM UTC

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On Thursday, President Joe Biden signed a $1.9 trillion COVID relief bill, historic for its scope, size, and some of its radical content, including a form of guaranteed basic income for families with children. The legislation is Biden’s first big win in the White House, and it arrives at a time as vaccination rates increase and the pandemic appears to be on the verge of receding. 

When it does, Biden will undoubtedly be praised for leading the country through the hopefully final phase of a deadly public health crisis. But with one crisis addressed, he will inevitably face more scrutiny on his handling of other major issues, the foremost of which is shaping up to be immigration.

“Given all of the concern by many in Congress about immigration and what’s happening at the border, this sure seems like a good time to move that initiative forward,” White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki told reporters last week, referring to recent news of an increase in migrant children at the border. 

Biden faces an uphill battle to realizing many of his proposed immigration policies, and merely undoing President Donald Trump’s—the bare minimum, according to immigrant rights advocates—may take all of his first term, some say. Truly transforming the immigration system, a longtime much-deferred goal of Democrats’, will take even longer.

“The Biden administration has inherited one of the most complicated areas of policy changes,” said Marielena Hincapié, the executive director of the National Immigration Law Center and a co-chair of the Biden-Sanders unity task force on immigration. “The Trump administration decimated the infrastructure and the staffing our country needs to have proper legal channels to treat immigrants safely and humanely, which I believe is the goal of the Biden administration.”

Biden’s comprehensive plan for tackling the issue is formally known as the U.S. Citizenship Act of 2021, a multi-pronged proposal that aims to provide a pathway to citizenship for the undocumented, end family separation, increase oversight of Department of Homeland Security and Border Patrol, and address a root cause of immigration by increasing federal assistance to Central American countries.

But while Democrats are in the majority, even the more popular aspects of Biden’s plan may be difficult to pass. While two upcoming bills related to DACA and green card status for farmers are expected to sail through the House this week, lawmakers say it will have to be reworked in the Senate if there’s any hope of it passing.

According to the Washington Post, some House Democrats are looking to include more enforcement measures in Biden’s plan to win over more Republican support, though they know it would trigger backlash from the progressive wing of the party. For the administration’s part, however, it seems they’re willing to make compromises. “They’re not wedded to that plan,” an advocate close to the White House told the Post of Biden’s sweeping proposal. “They’re willing to make any relief for the undocumented.”

“Any relief” may not be good enough for many immigrant rights advocates, who want to see substantial change from the new administration. They’re preparing to dial up the pressure on Biden, as they look forward to having the virus under control. 

“I think we are giving him a little bit of a pass because we have some sense of the realities of COVID,” said Manoj Govindaiah, the director of litigation services at RAICES. “But once the restrictions are gone, and we return to quote unquote ‘normal,’ we’re not going to be wasting any time in pushing him to be bold in how he moves forward.”

But while advocacy groups may have allowed Biden a kind of amnesty period, they haven’t completely let him off the hook. Last month, RAICES published a press release stating that the group was “shocked and saddened” to see that the administration had reopened the Carrizo Springs center and called for it to be closed immediately. Advocates have also railed against the Biden administration for reportedly preparing to reopen another emergency detention center in Homestead, Florida, which has faced allegations of sexual abuse

“It’s fiscally irresponsible, morally reprehensible, and it doesn’t legally comply with the way children are supposed to be detained under government care,” said Linda Brandmiller, an immigration lawyer in San Antonio who represents unaccompanied minors. “I’m bitterly disappointed in this administration.”

Brandmiller and others also worry that what some would term inflammatory media coverage—headlines describing an increase of incoming migrants as a “crisis,” for example—and right-wing talking points on immigration can have the effect of prodding Biden in the wrong direction. Committed to bipartisanship, Biden will want to appease both sides of the aisle, avoiding any comparisons to Trump on the left as well as any criticism of mishandling immigration on the right.

“The things we want—a demilitarization of the border and getting rid of the law enforcement approach—I don’t think they’re going to happen over night,” Govindaiah said. “The worry is that it might be easy to say there’s this ‘crisis’ or ‘influx’ and use some of the same tools Trump used to address it because [he thinks] there’s no choice until we figure something else out.” 

Nonetheless, a feeling of cautious optimism prevails among those who helped migrants through the Trump years. Many of Biden’s day one executive orders included rollbacks to Trump-era immigration policies: Upon taking office, Biden immediately ended the Muslim ban, halted construction of the U.S.-Mexico border wall, and directed the Department of Homeland Security to strengthen legal protections for DACA recipients. In the weeks since, the Biden administration has also reinstated the Central American Minors program, which allows children under 21 to be reunited with parents living lawfully in the U.S. 

“We know that it’s going to take time and require both administrative and legislative action for the Biden administration to undo the harm of the last four years,” Hincapie said. “Biden is already sending a message to the world that the U.S. is once again a welcoming nation.”