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Advocates Call On Biden To Change the Narrative on Immigration and Then Change Policy

President-elect Biden has a tough road ahead in reversing the Trump administration’s damage to the immigration system. Advocates say they’ll make sure he fulfills his promises.

People rally in support of the Supreme Court's ruling in favor of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, in San Diego, California June 18, 2020.
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Advocates Call On Biden To Change the Narrative on Immigration and Then Change Policy

President-elect Biden has a tough road ahead in reversing the Trump administration’s damage to the immigration system. Advocates say they’ll make sure he fulfills his promises.


When President-elect Joe Biden takes office, he will have to address more than 400 problems at once. And that’s only counting the ones involving immigration policy.  

For the nation’s leading and weary immigrant advocates, the Trump administration’s push to restrict all avenues of immigration left a scorched path of cruelty and a daunting to-do list. They include: giving permanency to so-called Dreamers, and those with other temporary protections from deportation; jumpstarting the refugee program; reinstalling asylum protections and eliminating the “remain in Mexico” program; reuniting separated children; ending the Muslim and African travel bans; expanding employment visas and easing the backlogs; reversing public charge; rethinking immigration enforcement; undoing citizenship barriers; rebuilding immigration courts. 

The incoming Biden administration has committed to many of these, on Day One, or within the first 100 days. But for many advocates, that won’t be enough.

“Rolling back the worst of the Trump administration—that’s not the goal, we can’t just get back to 2016 status quo,” said Todd Schulte, president of FWD.us, an advocacy group galvanizing business and grassroots support for immigrants. 

The Appeal conducted interviews with leaders of prominent advocacy groups about their expectations of the Biden administration. They disagree on immigration enforcement—notably whether to dismantle or reorganize the agencies responsible—but they all were united on three points: 

  • The narrative around immigrants has to change to be more affirmative. 
  • Alejandro Mayorkas, the first Latinx nominated to lead the Department of Homeland Security, is the right pick because of his experience not only as an immigrant, but as the director of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services who helped implement Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA).   
  • If Biden doesn’t uphold his promises, including sending a bill to Congress in the first 100 days to give the 11 million undocumented immigrants a pathway to citizenship, advocates say they will put him on notice. 

“We will continue to partner with them because we believe they are starkly different from the Trump administration—we know how bad things can get in this country,” Marielena Hincapié, executive director of the National Immigration Law Center, said of the incoming Biden administration’s work. 

But, Hincapié added: “When they are overstepping the law, when they are violating immigrants’ rights, we are going to sue them. When they are not following through on commitments, we are going to criticize them publicly.”


Hincapié was a member of the unity task force that hashed out immigration goals after Biden won the Democratic nomination over Senator Bernie Sanders. Javier Valdés, a co-executive director of Make the Road New York, was also a member. Valdés, who supported Sanders, said he was encouraged by how progressive their recommendations were. He pointed to Biden’s promise for a moratorium on deportations for the first 100 days as a crucial time in discussing what to do with the agencies that detain and deport immigrants—ICE and Customs and Border Protection (CBP). 

“That will help start creating a cultural change,” Valdés said.

Make the Road wants to abolish private prisons and, eventually, all immigration detention. Valdés added: “We have to rethink how we do reinforcement in a real way. … We won’t stop until our community is free.”

This week, groups across the country, including Make the Road’s political action group, marched in communities from Wilmington, Delaware, to California to remind Biden of his promises. Even they were surprised when the president-elect responded with a letter acknowledging their role in his election and that he respected their voice in shaping a “humane” immigration system.

Many advocate groups seek a realistic, more moderate short-term solution. Ali Noorani, president of the National Immigration Forum, said that Biden should return to the late-Obama era priority enforcement only of undocumented immigrants convicted of crimes. “That’s a smart use of law enforcement resources,” he said. 

Just as much of the country discovered that the Latinx vote is not a monolith, immigrant advocates should also realize their own community is diverse, with room for many voices, Noorani cautioned. “This is a deeply divided country and those of us outside government have a responsibility to find points of consensus,” he added.  

President Trump politicized the topic by portraying immigrants as criminals, or as people who are poor and disease-ridden. That narrative doesn’t have to swing to portraying all immigrants as extraordinary. Ordinary is fine, said Wendy Feliz, the founding director of the Center for Inclusion and Belonging at the American Immigration Council. 

“I like to joke that we need to ‘Make Immigration Boring Again,’” Feliz said

The last time there was comprehensive immigration reform was 1986, during the administration of President Ronald Reagan. “We need to get back to a place where passing immigration policy is a bipartisan thing, one that we do every eight, 10 years,” Feliz added. “I want it to be so depolarized that you just update the policies to help the country’s economy and society.” 

Despite it being a flashpoint, immigration is not included among the four public priorities listed on Biden’s transition website: COVID-19, economic relief, racial justice, and climate change. The word “immigrants” appears just once in the text. But Biden can change the narrative on immigrants by highlighting and normalizing their role in helping the country’s economic and pandemic recovery, advocates say.   

“Right now, as the country is going into the phase of a vaccine, it’s yet another opportunity for Biden to be talking about immigrants as farmworkers, grocery store clerks, nursing home staff, doctors,” Noorani said. 


A Gallup poll in July showed that Americans, for the first time since the question was asked in 1965, want more immigration. The two issues that helped spur this change, say advocates, were the public outrage over family separation at the Mexican border in 2018 and DACA, the 2012 program that has given temporary protection for some 800,000 young undocumented people brought to the country by their parents. A Pew Research Center poll in June showed that 74 percent of adults (representing both political parties) favor a permanent legal status for these young people.  

DACA has been under constant threat despite the 5-4 ruling from the Supreme Court in June that declared the Trump administration’s termination of the program illegal, and, most recently, a New York federal district court that ordered it to be restored to its 2017 protocols.

“DACA is tremendously important,” said Karen Tumlin, founder of the Justice Action Center and a lead lawyer in the New York case. “But we believe that DACA is the floor and not the ceiling.”

Congress has failed to enact a law for Dreamers since 2001, and their reliance on temporary protection could once again be in jeopardy. On Tuesday, a Texas federal district court will conduct another hearing in an ongoing case over whether the program was legal at the outset. In the event that the judge rules DACA was illegal, and an appeal reaches the Supreme Court, advocates know that the Court’s 6-3 conservative majority makes a victory unlikely. 

“We want to see an all-in administrative, legal, congressional approach to protecting DACA recipients,” Schulte of FWD.us said.  

The Trump administration is racing to make every policy harder to overturn quickly for the incoming administration, especially asylum. 

New federal regulations—including tightening “credible fear” tests at the border, giving immigration judges authority to deny cases outright, and narrowing definitions of persecution—will go into effect nine days before the inauguration. Currently, the southern border is all but closed to asylum-seeking migrants because of a health rule invoking the pandemic. The Biden transition has not yet announced whether it would reverse the rule. 

Advocates for refugees fleeing persecution who are applying for protection from outside the United States also know that a quick fix might be challenging. Biden has pledged to significantly increase the ceiling on refugees to 125,000 from its current cap of 15,000. (The United States admitted only 11,814 in fiscal year 2020.)

But getting to that number, or even back to the historical average ceiling of 95,000 will be challenging because the infrastructure is decimated: from the issuing of visas at closed embassies, to the pipeline of vetted refugees whose documents have expired, to the refugee agencies domestically and internationally who laid off thousands of employees.  

“We can’t let it become a second-tier issue,” said Melanie Nezer, a senior vice president of HIAS, one of the nine government-approved refugee agencies. “Refugee resettlement is not just about helping people fleeing persecution. It’s good for our country, it’s good for rebuilding our reputation in the world, it’s good for our partnership for allies overseas, countries that are important to us. It’s the humane, fair and just thing to do to assist them.”

Biden’s nomination of Mayorkas (a former HIAS board member born in Cuba to a Holocaust survivor mother) sends a strong signal that the United States wants to regain its status as a welcoming nation.  

“It’s not time to sit back and hope for the best,” Nezer said. “The new administration has so many competing priorities. There are so many urgent matters that will need to be addressed. It’s going to take a lot of strong advocacy across the country to make this happen.”