On the campaign trail, Joe Biden went to great lengths to establish the dramatic differences between himself and Donald Trump on immigration. Biden was very clear: He would reunite separated families, resettle 125,000 refugees and put privately run immigration detention centers firmly in the past.
Six months into his administration, immigration organizers are feeling whiplash.
The White House followed through on its promise of a 100-day deportation moratorium, but quickly abandoned the goals of its own executive order when it was blocked by a Trump-appointed federal judge, rather than pursuing legally available solutions like granting individuals temporary protection from deportation.
The Biden administration stopped adding immigrants into the Migrant Protection Protocols (which forced those seeking asylum in the United States to wait in Mexico while their cases were processed in U.S. courts), and agreed to allow children to cross the border without being turned away, but Vice President Kamala Harris communicated a very different message when she explicitly told migrants and asylum seekers, “Do not come [to the United States].”
President Biden broke his promise to raise the refugee cap, although he reversed course after overwhelming pressure from advocates.
Biden shut down two of the worst detention centers in the nation — including Georgia’s Irwin County Detention Center, where scores of women said they suffered medical abuse and forced hysterectomies — but this is only a beginning when it comes to curbing the horrific human rights abuses endemic to immigrant detention.
Since Biden took office, there have been more than 450,000 deportations or expulsions, and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) detention is up more than 60 percent — skyrocketing from 14,715 people on January 15 to 26,197 as of June 18. However, above all, the president’s budget exposes the hypocrisy of his administration’s position on immigration: Biden called for an $18 million increase in funding for the enforcement agency.
We have reached an inflection point. Will President Biden bury the tradition of criminalizing asylum seekers, tearing apart families and expanding the United States’ role in destabilizing governments in Latin America? Or will it continue “business as usual?”
While there is reason for alarm, there is also reason to hope for real shifts during this administration, driven by grassroots organizers. That is because the Biden administration has demonstrated some responsiveness to organizing — and that willingness to reverse course in the face of widespread public outrage gives us a unique opportunity to influence policy.
The White House is in the middle of rewriting a set of guidelines that dictate how ICE will conduct arrests, detentions and deportations — called the “enforcement priorities” or “prosecutorial discretion” (“PD”) memo. Currently, ICE agents have the power to decide who to arrest and detain based on an individual agent’s “good faith belief” about whether or not an immigrant presents a threat to “public safety.” This classification then determines how people get prioritized for deportation — basically, who immigration agents spend their time pursuing and detaining.
The existing rules in the PD memo identify anyone who entered the U.S. after November 20, 2020 — including asylum seekers — as a priority for deportation, which exposes an untold number of vulnerable people to dangerous political and social situations. They also grant the ability to label individuals aged 16 or older as being in “active participation” with a gang, and thus a priority for deportation. ICE can assign this label on intentional participation at their discretion, doubling down on an arbitrary and discriminatory framework used by law enforcement.
The rules governing ICE agents also presume that any immigrant who has been convicted of an “aggravated felony” is a public safety risk and removal priority. In fact, the term “aggravated felonies” is designed to ensure that people have as few rights as possible to fight detention and deportation.
Take it from Paul Pierrilus, a New York financial consultant, who was deported to Haiti under the Biden administration on February 2, despite never even setting foot in that country: “You made a promise to stop deportation and close detention centers. These detention centers are caging of innocent people. You can use your executive power to uphold your promise.”
If we learned anything in 2020, it’s that the policing and mass incarceration systems in this country are fundamentally rigged against Black and Latinx people — and our immigration enforcement system is an extension of that. Relying on traffic offenses, calls to the ICE hotline, eviction histories, and other objectively unreliable evidence only legitimizes demonstrated racial profiling practiced by police forces.
The ripple effect caused by each deportation spreads far and wide. During the 30 forums held as part of Mijente’s Eyes on ICE campaign, 150 people testified to their experiences with the enforcement agency. The consensus was clear: Detention and deportation negatively impact children, families and communities. The deportation of a parent or family member causes traumatic mental and physical health effects in children, and an increase in child poverty, impacts that create significant strain on local communities. In fact, research shows that deportation causes other community members to become fearful and mistrustful of public institutions and reduce participation in schools, health clinics, faith and cultural activities, and other crucial civic institutions.
That’s the status quo. But right now, President Biden has an opportunity to break with the dangerous policies of the Trump administration, move away from the mistakes of the past, and demand that immigrants be recognized as whole human beings with families that love them, businesses that need them and communities that rely on them.
We are in a moment of racial reckoning in this country, with communities across the country calling for an end to mass incarceration and racist policing. It is time to end the carceral approach to immigration, which relies on these same flawed systems. It’s time to proactively limit ICE’s power to harm undocumented people and our communities.
The Biden administration has a choice to make: continue to destroy immigrant families, or pursue humane and just immigration policies that aim to end mass incarceration, criminalization and deportation of immigrants.
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