Cautious Optimism for Immigration in 2021

Those who are affected by American immigration policies have deeply suffered since Trump entered office in 2017. Sudden reforms, executive orders, and memos have made it nearly impossible for immigration agencies to be successful in their vital work. Though this was certainly expected given the focus President Trump placed on immigration during his campaign, it was nonetheless disheartening for those who wished to come to the United States. The U.S. should always be a beacon of hope for those who wish to immigrate; President Trump changed this.

Now, there is cautious optimism among experts that the damage done in the past four years will be remedied by President-Elect Biden, though we can expect it to take time. Simply undoing policies put in place by President Trump without well thought out replacements would be unwise. The Biden Administration must work out effective policies to begin healing the damage done to immigration. Additionally, the COVID-19 pandemic requires immediate action to prevent further lives from being lost.

Let us examine the actions President Biden could take in the short-term regarding immigration. These issues include the removal of the current ban on travel from predominantly Muslim countries, reforming the asylum-seeking process, increasing the cap on admitting refugees, preserving and expanding DACA, scaling back the aggressiveness of ICE agents, and removing the “Public Charge” policy.

In his first week of office, President Trump issued the first edition of the “Travel Ban.” Two variations and several legal challenges later, a travel ban still exists for thirteen countries, affecting them to various degrees. Regardless of what the ban was called (as it was initially called a Muslim Travel Ban, then the language was changed to not sound as harsh), it is aimed at predominately Muslim countries. While this three year-long ban has been problematic, it can potentially be reversed by the new president. All versions of the ban have come through executive order; President- Elect Biden would be able to issue a new executive order overriding the one that implemented the ban. He may then direct the Department of Justice to cease defending the ban in court. This would reopen immigration channels for potential immigrants with the possibility of long-term permanent status.

Coming to the United States and seeking asylum has been a right for those meeting the proper criteria: they must demonstrate a credible fear of persecution or torture that would result if they were to return to their native country. Under the Trump Administration, this process has been crippled. Currently, there are tens of thousands of asylum seekers forced to wait in Mexico for a chance to enter the US. Many of the inhumane practices the Trump Administration attempted to put into place were struck down in the court system. However, asylum overall has largely become out of reach due to the policies pushed through our legal system. In addition, there is currently a restriction on how many asylum seekers are allowed to cross the border each day. This could be undone by instructing US Customs and Border Protection commissioner to issue a memo to those in charge at the ports of entry removing the restriction.

Similarly, the Trump Administration has severely lowered the admission of refugees, calling them “national security threats” and “drains on the US economy.” Early into his presidency, Mr. Trump whittled the number of refugees allowed from 110,000 down to 50,000. He continued to lower this number each year, resulting in it now sitting at just 15,000. While it is common practice for presidents to set the limit for the number of refugees in the fall, right before the start of a new fiscal year, President-Elect Biden could potentially follow Mr. Trump’s lead and set a new limit for refugees early in his presidency through an executive order. Mr. Biden has already pledged to increase the admission target to 125,000.

President Trump made the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, program one of his major targets, though his attempts to dismantle it ultimately failed in the Supreme Court. The court’s decision, however, still left a path to end the program, as while they disagreed with the manner in which the program was ended, they also did not protect it. Therefore, unless President-Elect Biden secures DACA long-term, it may still be endangered in the future. In the short term, Mr. Biden can issue a new memo removing the 2017 order to end the program. In the long run, the program should be expanded to include those who were unable to apply for the program during the ongoing legal battle. Additionally, there is pressure for Mr. Biden to expand the number of people who qualify for DACA and give them a clear path to citizenship. These changes would protect the program indefinitely, regardless of who is president in the future.

Immediately after taking office, President Trump ramped up the number of arrests and deportations performed by Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE. Under President Obama, ICE was directed to target those who had criminal records and, in general, leave peaceful undocumented immigrants alone. These “enforcement priorities,” as they were known, were removed once Trump took office. He directed ICE agents to arrest all undocumented immigrants regardless of their history, leading to large scale raids of businesses and factories. President-Elect Biden will be able to reinstitute the enforcement priorities with a new executive order.

There has always been a requirement for prospective immigrants to show that they will be self-sufficient to a certain degree. This rule, known as the “public charge” rule, was introduced in the Immigration Act of 1882. However, the Trump Administration greatly increased the requirements for prospective immigrants. They have now expanded the rejection criteria and left much up to the interpretation of each individual agent due to a lack of a concrete evaluation system. These new requirements prevent those who are not financially well-off from gaining long-term permanent resident status. In recent times, being on public assistance has been looked down upon by those who have always had the privilege to avoid it. Realistically, forcing underprivileged people to choose between receiving life-saving aid and having a green card in their future puts them in an impossible situation. The public charge rule has been challenged in court, and although it took effect in February, a federal judge has since struck the rule down, yet it still remains in effect as an appeals court stayed the order until the appeals process is completed. Should it stay there until Mr. Biden is inaugurated, he would be able to instruct his attorneys to drop the appeal and let the previous decision take effect. This would solve the issue in the present, while allowing more secure measures to be created for the future.

While none of these improvements will happen immediately, there is reason to believe President-Elect Biden will make positive changes to our immigration programs and policies. Immigrants are a vital part of American society. Though there is reason for caution, there is equally reason for hope.

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