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Progressives are getting ready to push Biden on immigration reform

“If they go back to Obama-era immigration policies, they will have failed.”

Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-WA) talks with reporters after a meeting of the House Democratic Caucus in the Capitol on Tuesday, March 3, 2020.
Tom Williams/CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Images
Nicole Narea covers politics and society for Vox. She first joined Vox in 2019, and her work has also appeared in Politico, Washington Monthly, and the New Republic.

Progressive Democrats in Congress are calling for President-elect Joe Biden to dismantle the federal government’s deportation machine, broaden immigrants’ access to social safety net programs, and rely far less on detention to ensure that immigrants show up for court hearings.

During the Democratic primaries, progressive candidates pushed not just to undo some of President Donald Trump’s more draconian changes to the immigration system, but to rethink a system that had, with bipartisan consensus, “criminalize[d] desperation” of immigrants seeking a better life in the US, as former presidential candidate Julián Castro put it.

With Biden elected, immigrant advocates now see reform, which lawmakers have punted for more than a decade, as an imperative — and say they are ready to hold Biden to account on his promises to act.

Washington Rep. Pramila Jayapal, chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, will introduce a resolution once the new Congress is seated outlining priorities for comprehensive immigration reform, covering everything from progressives’ vision for a humane immigration enforcement system to a plan for the federal government to better serve immigrant communities in the US.

The resolution — which she shared with Vox and is co-sponsored by Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Yvette Clarke of New York, Judy Chu of California, Jesús García of Illinois, and Veronica Escobar of Texas — was drafted in collaboration with immigrant advocates, who want it to be the gold standard for measuring Biden’s actions.

“We will really push hard. I think we have had hard lessons in negotiating away too quickly,” said Roxana Norouzi, deputy director of OneAmerica Votes, who worked on the resolution. “Whatever proposal comes out of the Biden administration in the first 100 days, we will use this resolution to measure the gap.”

Biden told NBC News after the election that, within his first 100 days in office, he plans to send his own immigration reform bill to the Senate that would create a path to citizenship for the estimated 10.5 million undocumented immigrants living in the US.

But whether the Senate will consider such a proposal could hinge on the outcome of the Georgia Senate runoffs, which will determine whether Republicans maintain control of the chamber. Republican Sens. Susan Collins, John Cornyn, Thom Tillis, and Marco Rubio, who spoke at a recent summit on immigration reform, appeared willing to engage Democrats in conversations around the topic, but if Republicans keep Senate control, the fate of a bill would ultimately lie with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.

Jayapal and the immigrant advocates behind the resolution intend to lobby Biden to incorporate their policy proposals in that package. But they also acknowledge that change could come in many forms. It’s possible, for example, that Congress could build consensus around bills protecting specific groups of immigrants, such as undocumented essential workers and Dreamers who came to the US as children, while putting forward more systemic reforms in a separate bill.

“There are multiple pathways to winning relief and legalization for people,” said Lorella Praeli, president of Community Change Action, which helped develop the resolution. “This [resolution] is what it would look like if we were able to fully realize our vision for a just and humane system. ... It’s a call to action to go big, to be relentless and also to be nimble.”

The resolution’s boldest demands concern humane immigration enforcement and access to the social safety net

Biden’s own proposals already reflect many of the immigrant advocacy community’s priorities to make the immigration system more humane and effective for those seeking to come to the US and those already living in the country.

But the resolution demands that the federal government pursue more aggressive reforms. Under the current system, immigration judges can levy only one available penalty against those who commit civil immigration violations or who have been convicted of crimes: deportation. For many, deportation means uprooting their lives and being separated from their families in the US. But those dire consequences often don’t align with the severity of the violations or crimes an immigrant has committed.

The resolution argues that judges should instead be able to impose scalable penalties based on the severity of the offense, such as fines, community service, treatment programs, or probationary periods. Deportation should not be the consequence of minor offenses, such as shoplifting or a traffic violation, Jayapal said in an interview.

“We’re seeking to sort of disentangle this idea that all criminals should be deported,” she said.

The resolution also advocates for improving immigrants’ access to health care and housing and “eliminating barriers that deter immigrant communities from accessing crucial public services for which they are eligible.” Those barriers have become particularly visible amid the pandemic: Even legal immigrants who arrived in the US in the last five years remain ineligible for federally funded public insurance programs, and unauthorized immigrants, including those covered by the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, or DACA, were ineligible for stimulus checks in many states.

Jayapal said she is specifically considering changes to the 1996 Welfare Reform Act. The law made legal permanent residents ineligible for food stamps and Social Security income benefits and created a five-year waiting period before they became eligible for Medicaid and Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, despite the fact that they pay taxes and are on the road to citizenship.

She sees expanding the social safety net to immigrants as a critical missing piece of Biden’s plans.

“Frankly, it’s politically inconvenient,” she said. “There are a lot of people who still are worried about taking on the idea of immigrants draining our economy and contributing nothing, which are just myths — complete myths that Trump has been continuing to perpetuate.”

Jayapal also believes that it is time to fundamentally rethink the immigration detention system, just as there was a national reckoning around the criminal justice system, which led to the passage of a bipartisan bill in 2018 that took modest steps to reduce punitive prison sentences at the federal level. That bill was rooted in a realization that private jails and prisons carry a heavy price tag for the federal government and that investing in education, rehabilitation, and the social safety net would ultimately be cheaper.

She said it’s the same story with the immigration detention system, which holds around 50,000 people on any given day, costing taxpayers $208 per detainee daily.

Instead, the resolution asserts that the US should embrace a “presumption of liberty for all immigrants,” bringing an end to family detention and the controversial 287(g) program, under which local law enforcement can question people about their immigration status and detain them on immigration charges. Biden has not committed to either of those proposals so far but has suggested that he would “aggressively limit” 287(g) and focus enforcement resources on people who present threats to public safety and national security, rather than families.

The resolution also calls for ending for-profit detention and investing in community-based case management programs that are designed to ensure immigrants show up for their immigration appointments without putting them in detention, both proposals that Biden has already embraced.

“So many of those people do not need to be in detention,” Jayapal said. “It is an expensive, inhumane way to deal with immigration.”

There is overlap between the resolution and Biden’s agenda

The resolution does share common ground with what Biden has already proposed to accomplish legislatively.

It calls for better protections for the rights of immigrant workers. Biden, for his part, has pledged to support preexisting bills that would improve the rights of immigrants working in the agricultural and domestic care industries, many of whom are undocumented. That includes the Fairness for Farm Workers Act, which would allow farmworkers to be paid overtime for working more than 40 hours a week and improve their minimum wage protections, and the Domestic Workers Bill of Rights, which would give domestic workers common workplace rights such as paid overtime and protection from harassment and discrimination.

The resolution advocates for facilitating cooperation with regional partners to address the underlying causes of migration. Biden has said that he would put forth a $4 billion foreign aid package for Central America that would be delivered over the course of four years, incentivizing governments to reduce gang- and gender-based violence, improve their legal and educational systems, and implement anti-corruption measures. Instability in Central America’s Northern Triangle countries — Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras — has driven many to seek refuge at the US southern border.

Biden also suggested in an interview with NBC News in June that he would push for legislation that would create a floor of 95,000 refugees admitted to the US annually (Trump has unilaterally slashed refugee admissions to just 18,000 this year, the lowest it has ever been) and seek to streamline the naturalization process.

Those proposals represent genuine progress, but advocates continue to question his commitment to making immigration a priority beyond merely undoing the worst of Trump’s policies. Biden claims that he would not simply return to the Obama-era status quo on immigration, which involved record-level deportations and an expansion of family detention.

“Even [former President Barack Obama] acknowledges we can’t go back to what it was,” he told NBC. “I have a program that is significantly different and builds upon where we left off and tries to undo the damage that Trump has done.”

But advocates are watching the president-elect’s next moves closely to see whether he will be as aggressive in advancing pro-immigrant policies as Trump and his senior adviser Stephen Miller were in pursuing a nativist agenda. Immigrant communities, who have been under siege for the last four years, deserve nothing less, Praeli said.

“If they go back to Obama-era immigration policies, they will have failed,” she said.