In the opening hours of his presidency, President Biden took action to not just reverse the anti-immigrant policies of the last four years, but liberalize all aspects of a system long considered broken. Biden’s moves will have broad impact on new immigrants, long-time undocumented residents, and families with loved ones of mixed immigration status throughout the New York and New Jersey area.
Here are five ways that Biden is immediately altering the immigration system:
The ‘Muslim Ban’ Is No More
Biden signed an order last night that ends what was known as the “Muslim Ban,” Trump’s 2017 executive order that became the subject of numerous lawsuits and nationwide airport protests, including at JFK. It eventually applied to 13 countries, most of which are majority-Muslim.
Biden’s order says the secretary of state shall direct all embassies and consulates to resume visa processing in those countries and report back in 45 days on a plan for “expeditiously” processing applications. It also calls for reconsidering people whose applications were denied during the Trump years.
Linda Sarsour, a Brooklyn-based, Palestinian-American activist and co-founder of the group MPower, said 41,000 visas were denied by the previous administration. But with COVID-19 continuing to prevent so much international travel, she said advocates are waiting for details. “How fast can we start operationalizing this rescinding of the Muslim Ban?” she asked. ”All Joe Biden did yesterday was sign a piece of paper.”
New York City Immigrant Affairs Commissioner Bitta Mostofi said she knows students whose educations were interrupted and families who were separated by the travel ban, harming the city’s economy. She said it’s critically important that the plan for looking at people whose visas were denied is “equitable and fair in resolving what was a stain on the process.”
(Almost) No Deportations For 100 Days—And Fewer ICE Arrests
A Department of Homeland Security memorandum issued on Biden’s first day in office bans most deportations for 100 days while a review is conducted of Immigration and Customs Enforcement policies. The memo applies to almost all immigrants with final deportation orders, except for those who arrived after November 1st, and those suspected of terrorism.
At the same time, ICE is reversing its priorities for arrests. The Biden Administration rescinded a 2017 Trump Administration memo that allowed all immigrants without documents to be arrested, detained, and deported. The agency will instead focus on those who are deemed national security threats or those convicted of aggravated felonies.
For advocates who see the detention of people on immigration violations — a policy which only began in large numbers 25 years ago — as unjust, the new measures do not go far enough. Detention Watch Network, a nationwide coalition of immigrant advocates, said in a statement that the list of crimes considered “aggravated felonies” can include minor offenses, like shoplifting.
“Immigrants and refugees with criminal convictions should not face additional punishment of detention and deportation because of where they were born,” the statement said. The network also said that immigrants should immediately be released from detention, given the spread of the coronavirus behind bars.
About 500 immigrants from New York and New Jersey are now held at county jails in New Jersey and upstate New York, and at a privately-run detention center in Elizabeth, NJ. The detainee population nationwide is now at historic lows due to coronavirus-related releases and a reduction in arrests since the onset of the pandemic.
‘Dreamers’ Are Here To Stay
Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) was created during the Obama administration and covers more than 650,000 undocumented immigrants, known as Dreamers, who were brought to the U.S. as children. They include approximately 75,000 DACA recipients and DACA-eligible New Yorkers in the city, according to the Mayor’s Office of Immigrant Affairs.
DACA granted recipients work authorization and protection from deportation. The U.S. Supreme Court rejected the Trump administration’s efforts to abolish the program, and a federal judge in New York ordered the full restoration of DACA last November, but a lone challenge to it continues in Texas.
Another one of Biden’s executive orders states that immigrants with DACA “should not be a priority for removal based on humanitarian concerns and other considerations, and that work authorization will enable them to support themselves and their families, and to contribute to our economy, while they remain.”
This was a welcome relief to Eliana Fernandez, one of the New York plaintiffs who sued to keep DACA.
“I have been living under the constant threat of being separated from my children as the Trump administration viciously tried to put an end to the DACA program,” said the 33-year-old mother of two who lives in Shirely, Long Island.
Fernandez came to the U.S. from Ecuador when she was just four years old to join her parents. She’s an organizer with Make the Road New York, which was also a plaintiff in the suit that went to the U.S. Supreme Court. She said she’s now committed to lobbying Congress to provide a path to citizenship for all undocumented immigrants.
Protections For Liberians
This narrowly crafted Biden executive order applies to thousands of immigrants who lost their work authorization this month.
Civil wars in the West African nation between 1989-2003 caused hundreds of thousands of Liberians to leave their country. New York City now has one of the largest Liberian communities in the U.S., with most living on Staten Island.
The U.S. gave these immigrants a form of temporary protection from deportation called Deferred Enforcement Departure (DED), which had to be renewed every few years. Some conservatives argued it wasn’t needed anymore. President Trump then prepared to phase it out by March of 2020.
But about 4,000 DED recipients who have lived in the U.S. since 2014 still have a path to citizenship. Last year, the pandemic forced Congress to extend their green card application period until December of 2020. However, their work authorization lapsed on January 10th.
Biden’s order restores work authorization for these Liberirans, along with protection from deportation until June of 2022.
David Dann, who runs the group Liberians in NYC, said there are more than 10,000 Liberians in the metro region. He said most of them have legal status, like himself. But he estimates up to a thousand could have lost their work authorization this month.
Most work in the healthcare industry as nurses or home health aides, Dann said. Allowing them to keep working to support their families is critical, he explained, because, “they’re not even eligible to get any social assistance, you know, welfare, unemployment or anything of that status.”
On Deck: Path To Citizenship For 11 Million Residents
Biden is spending his early political capital and narrow Democratic control of Congress to push a bill that would make historic reforms to the immigration system. But getting the U.S. Citizenship Act passed will not be easy.
The bill provides a path to citizenship for an estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants living in the United States who clear a vetting process, with an eight-year runway for Green Card eligibility and then citizenship. Those with short-term protections that Trump sought to strip — like Temporary Protected Status and Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals — could become citizens in five years.
To deter the flow of migration from the south, the bill provides money for the Central American countries that migrants flee due to issues ranging from gang violence to governmental oppression. And it creates offices in those countries for displaced migrants to apply for asylum protections in the United States and other safe countries.
The bill also increases the number of visas allowed for citizens of other countries, expanding legal immigration.
Under the bill, the word “alien” would be eliminated from federal laws and documents, and replaced with “noncitizen” — just as New York City did last year.
“No longer will we dehumanize the undocumented,” said Democratic New Jersey Sen. Robert Menendez, the lead sponsor of the bill in the senate.
Notably, and to the consternation of some immigration activists, the bill does not abolish Immigration and Customs Enforcement, nor does it dismantle the system of detention that puts tens of thousands of immigrants in local jails and private prisons. But Menendez referred to unspecified elements of the bill that would strengthen alternatives to detention. One alternative that the government already employs is issuing monitoring ankle bracelets to those in deportation proceedings instead of locking them up.
The bill requires 60 votes to pass in the Senate, which means nine Republicans would have to support the measure. In a call with supporters of the bill today, Menendez acknowledged that success will be difficult. But he repeatedly asked the business community to get behind the bill, indicating that he believes appealing to monetary interests could be the key to unlocking GOP support.
“I think there is a moral imperative, I think there is a national security imperative, but for those who aren’t moved by either of those imperatives let me make an economic imperative,” Menendez said, citing statistics showing that immigrants support the tax base and make up a huge percentage of the essential workforce.