On February 7, President Joe Biden gave his second State of the Union address. A DREAMer was the first lady’s date for the evening, but the humanitarian crisis at our borders barely registered as a blip in the 73-minute speech.
That’s not by accident. There’s no reason that cautious White House staff would encourage the president to highlight the 853 people who died trying to reach our country by crossing the U.S.-Mexico border last year. Why draw attention to the mass deaths suffered by thousands seeking safety? In the president’s moment of glory, better not to acknowledge the administration’s inhumane, illegal approach to the asylum process.
President Biden’s immigration platform is window dressing designed to try to hide the needless suffering his policies are inflicting on desperate people who are being denied critical protections.
The president’s posture today is a far cry from the promises he made on the campaign trail.
Candidate Biden campaigned on a promise to restore our asylum laws, lift the refugee ban and end a harmful Trump-era policy known as the “transit ban” that prevented vulnerable migrants from entering the U.S. if they failed to apply for asylum in another country before reaching our border.
But as president, Biden took a page out of Stephen Miller’s playbook — reviving Trump-era immigration policies that illegally and immediately expel to Mexico asylum seekers from a list of specified countries.
The Biden administration claims it has created new avenues to facilitate the arrival of asylum seekers from a shortlist of countries. What the administration fails to acknowledge is just how deadly such border restrictions have been — and will continue to be — as people in desperate situations confront policies designed to block them at the border.
Congress designed U.S. asylum laws to ensure that anyone escaping persecution has a chance to seek safe harbor, regardless of how they enter the country. The president’s current immigration policies send people fleeing persecution back to danger and bar asylum even to those with the strongest claims.
Under Biden, the U.S. government has still not taken accountability for the deaths of Roxana Hernandez and Johana Medina — transgender immigrants who died while in Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) custody during the Trump administration. And Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas has ignored the calls of LGBT immigrants’ rights groups who have asked for meaningful engagement and meetings to discuss preventative policy measures that address transphobic treatment inside detention and at the border.
And so, as he stood before both houses of Congress and the American people and professed support for human rights, President Biden’s illegal, inhumane immigration policies put him squarely in violation of U.S. and international law.
When Donald Trump divided families, held children in cages and banned Muslims from immigrating to the United States, everyone from grassroots organizers to the highest-ranking Democrats in Congress rose up in outrage. We took to the streets, organized rallies, raised money and wholeheartedly denounced the cruelty coming from the White House.
During the State of the Union, where were the protests against Biden’s cruelty? Where were the immigration advocates demanding humane treatment for people dying at our borders? Where were the congresspeople invoking the Statue of Liberty’s “poor, tired, huddled masses”?
They were in the room, applauding.
Members of the Biden administration were savvy in their efforts to court organizers and activists. They invited us to join them at policy tables. They held off-the-record meetings to solicit our thoughts on the Title 42 court battle.
And the former agitators who made names for themselves railing against the Trump administration accepted this appeasement, deciding that a direct line to D.C. would serve as better leverage than organizing in the streets.
But all of those meetings were a front — a box to be checked so that press secretaries could truthfully say they had met with stakeholders when photos of the desperate families who drowned crossing the Rio Grande made front page news.
And while these advocates shuffle in and out of D.C. offices shaking hands, hundreds of thousands of people are facing human rights atrocities and unspeakable violence — both at the border and from institutions like ICE and Customs and Border Patrol (CBP).
Advocates who were praised for their outrage against Donald Trump sat in rooms with the same people who continued his disastrous immigration policies.
Once they got their ticket to the White House, they somehow lost their voices. Rather than risk their seat at the table by issuing clear demands to reestablish and affirm asylum, they stayed quiet. They allowed this unspeakably cruel policy to come to life.
Meanwhile, the Democratic Party, which raised untold millions on the stories of children being held in cages, has shrugged its shoulders. They are happy to be complicit as long as their guy sits in the West Wing.
Meanwhile the philanthropic community, flooded with funding from liberals, has thrown money at direct service immigrant rights groups to appease their guilt for not speaking out against the failed leadership of the Democratic Party.
But one-off clothing drives and part-time funding for pro-bono immigration attorneys are simply insufficient.
We don’t need a Band-Aid. We need the wholesale immigration reform we were promised. We need a president who understands that the principle of asylum is immutable.
The truth is, President Biden’s immigration proposals are constructed to obscure the needless misery his policies have brought to immigrants who are being denied critical, permanent protection for reasons that have nothing to do with their need for refuge.
Like the policies of previous administrations, Biden’s policies will cause further suffering and the death of innumerable people seeking refuge on U.S. soil.
Because, regardless of which party occupies the White House, one thing remains the same: Migrants with few choices will risk their lives for the American Dream.
It’s time for retired agitators to let go of their fears and proximity to power and find their way back to the streets and to the heart of organizing — building power with our people.
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