On Monday morning, President Joe Biden is slated to virtually address the National Immigrant Integration Conference, the largest gathering of immigration and refugee advocates in the country, with a list of his priorities for reforming the nation’s immigration system.
But for all of the campaign promises to fix what even Biden has called a “long-broken and chaotic” system, his pre-recorded remarks will fall on the ears of increasingly skeptical attorneys, activists, and civil rights leaders who say that Biden’s actions on immigration are merely an Obama-era redux—or even a slick repackaging of President Donald Trump’s worst policies.
“On the campaign trail, now-President Biden went to great lengths to establish the dramatic differences between himself and Donald Trump—and few policy areas were more divergent than the handling of immigration,” said Jacinta Gonzalez, senior campaign organizer with Mijente, a Latino political group. “But immigration organizers continue to feel whiplash.”
During the campaign, Biden pledged to break from President Barack Obama’s approach to immigration, acknowledging in his final debate with Trump that “we made a mistake” on immigration during his time as vice president.
“We made a mistake—it took too long to get it right,” Biden said at the time, pledging to “immediately” put DACA recipients on a path to citizenship and to send a pathway to citizenship to Congress.
“Many of them are model citizens,” Biden said of undocumented immigrants. “Over 20,000 of them are first responders out there taking care of people during this crisis. We owe them. We owe them.”
Nine months into the Biden administration, he has made good on his pledge to send an immigration reform bill to Congress, but advocates for immigration reform still have a long list of grievances: the continued reliance on a dubious public health order to bar nearly all asylum seekers from entering the country; putting the blame for the bungled extraction of Afghan interpreters and translators following the fall of Kabul on the interpreters and translators themselves; borderline-dangerous housing conditions for the few unaccompanied minors who are allowed to remain in the United States as they seek asylum; and the abuse of Haitian migrants at the U.S.-Mexico border by U.S. Customs and Border Protection agents last month.
But even the inarguable improvements implemented by the Biden administration are leaving advocates feeling like the president’s expansive campaign promises on immigration are just a regression to Obama-era enforcement. Case in point, last week’s announcement that the Department of Homeland Security had issued new guidelines on immigration enforcement, which the department said would better focus resources “on the apprehension and removal of noncitizens who are a threat to our national security, public safety, and border security.”
“For the first time, our guidelines will, in the pursuit of public safety, require an assessment of the individual and take into account the totality of the facts and circumstances,” Secretary of Homeland Security Alejandro Mayorkas said in a statement announcing the guidelines. “In exercising this discretion, we are guided by the knowledge that there are individuals in our country who have been here for generations and contributed to our country’s well-being, including those who have been on the frontline in the battle against COVID, lead congregations of faith, and teach our children.”
But immigrant-rights advocates are already calling the guidelines a rollback to the Obama administration’s similar approach towards undocumented immigrants, which led to the deportation of a record number of undocumented people from the United States, including children, DACA recipients and others who felt that they were lulled into a false sense of security. Nearly 1.2 million undocumented people were deported from the United States in the first three years of Obama’s administration; fewer than 800,000 were deported during the same period of Trump’s presidency.
The higher numbers are due to numerous factors, including country of origin and the increased length of time that migrants were held in immigrant detention before being removed, but were in large part due to the administration’s ability to streamline deportations. With fewer targets for removal, there are fewer chances for more complicated cases—those involving unaccompanied minors, potential asylees, and families—from jamming up the system.
“Given ICE’s well-documented history of abusing its power to detain and deport our community members, we know this guidance alone will not reign in the agents entrusted to implement this guidance in good faith,” said Layla Razavi, co-interim executive director of Freedom for Immigrants. “Without shrinking or dismantling the massive, militarized presence amassed by ICE and CBP, immigrant communities will continue to be funneled into the abusive immigration detention system.”
The fact that the guidelines make recently arrived undocumented immigrants—including those seeking asylum—an enforcement priority has particularly angered advocates. Per the guidelines, an undocumented immigrant is deemed to pose “a threat to border security” and is a priority for removal if they have arrived in the United States in the past eleven months.
“Punishing recently arrived asylum seekers by designating them as enforcement priorities is cruel and inhumane,” said Robyn Barnard, senior advocacy counsel at Human Rights First. “It inflicts further trauma on those who have left everything behind to find safety.”
Barnard, who called the Biden administration’s effective continuation of a Trump-era policy of forcing asylum seekers to remain in Mexico “perverse,” said that the recent-arrival priority could run afoul of international law.
“Treating people seeking refugee protection as priorities for arrest and deportation would moreover flout U.S. legal obligations under the Refugee Convention and Protocol, which makes clear that people seeking refuge should not be penalized.”
The White House has bristled at the notion that Biden’s policies in any way echo Trump’s, from immigration to COVID-19 to international arms deals, noting that the president campaigned on reversing course from the previous White House’s approach to nearly every issue foreign and domestic.
“Title 42 is a public health requirement… because we’re in the middle of a pandemic, which, by the way, we would have made progress on had the former President actually addressed the pandemic and not suggested people inject bleach,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki said last week, in response to a question comparing Biden’s policies to those of his predecessor. “So, I think we’re in a bit of a different place.”
But not different enough, according to advocates, who intend to devote much of the National Immigrant Integration Conference’s agenda to the issue of Title 42, the public health order that effectively bars almost all asylum seekers from entering the United States in the name of the coronavirus pandemic.
“We call on the Biden administration to rescind Title 42, slash the budget for all enforcement, and honor its campaign promise to end private detention,” said Razavi. “Immigrants are human beings and valued members of our communities—they’re our neighbors, parents, and loved ones. It’s time this administration treated them as such.”