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Just last month, all Franchesco Ramirez, 19, could envision as a future was working as a construction worker, or perhaps a housekeeper, like his mom.
Those jobs are some of the few gigs that pay cash. And because the Honduran immigrant — whose parents brought him across the southern U.S. border when he was 2 — is undocumented, he can’t drive, can’t go to school and his future felt full of roadblocks.
On Wednesday, U.S. President Joe Biden sent legislation to Congress that would overhaul the U.S. immigration system. The sweeping reform proposal includes broad legal protections for millions of undocumented immigrants currently living in the United States. It also provides an expedited path to citizenship for so-called “Dreamers,” individuals who came to the U.S. as children, and others given a temporary reprieve after fleeing natural disaster or armed conflict.
On his first day in office, Biden also signed several executive orders reversing immigration decisions made by the Trump administration, including halting construction of the border wall. And he asked the Departments of Justice and Homeland Security to take “all appropriate actions” to safeguard Dreamers.
Later in the evening, Homeland Security announced that beginning Saturday a 100-day pause on the removal of certain non-citizens ordered deported will commence. The announcement was part of another Biden campaign promise.
Ramirez, a recent South Miami High School graduate who submitted his Deferred Action for Childhood Arrival application a few weeks ago after a federal judge ordered the Department of Homeland Security to restore the DACA program, said Biden’s inauguration and proposal means “dreaming bigger.”
“That means I can learn, go to school and become a nurse,” he said. “It means I won’t have to walk my sister every day to pre-K and take my parents to doctors appointments — not take an Uber there.
“It means,” he added after a long pause, “I can silence out people who tell me to marry an American, because that’s not what’s even on my mind. I want to change things. It means I can finally contribute to this world.”
Under former President Donald Trump, the U.S.’s immigration system saw the most aggressive approach to enforcement in recent history. Biden, on the campaign trail, promised to change that by introducing not just legislation but executive action to extend protections to those with Temporary Protected Status, or TPS, and DACA recipients while reviewing decisions taken under Trump.
The new proposal calls for improved technology to enhance border security and offers $4 billion in aid to address the root causes of migration from Central America, like violence and poverty. It also prohibits discrimination based on religion in making immigration decisions — a move that is being embraced by the Muslim community. Trump had issued a ban on travelers from predominantly Muslim countries.
Some see Biden’s immigration plan as a desire to turn the page on the Trump approach. Unlike other immigration reform proposals, including two failed legislative efforts in 2007 and 2013, and President Ronald Reagan’s sweeping 1986 amnesty program, Biden’s proposal is not heavy on enforcement.
Whether it remains this way is yet to be seen, said observers, who note that like all legislation, it will be subject to negotiations in Congress. But should it pass, the legislation would be the biggest immigration overhaul since Reagan provided 3 million people with amnesty in 1986.
‘Dreamer’ hopes dashed during years of setbacks
On Tuesday, the Senate failed to swiftly confirm Biden’s Homeland Security nominee, Alejandro Mayorkas, after Missouri Republican Sen. Josh Hawley blocked quick consideration. Hawley said he was not satisfied with Mayorkas’ response on how he will enforce federal law and secure the southern border.
There are an estimated at least 11 million undocumented immigrants in the U.S. Meanwhile, researchers estimate there are between 690,000 and 800,000 people with DACA. Under the proposed legislation, DACA beneficiaries will also get an expedited pathway to citizenship, along with more than 300,000 TPS recipients. Incoming Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Menendez, D-N.J., received the text of the bill Wednesday from the administration and was preparing it for introduction, a foreign affairs committee staffer confirmed.
The bill also increases the number of refugees allowed into the country. Menendez says not one of the 945 asylum seekers transferred from the United States to Guatemala as part of the Trump administration’s plan to divert migrants has been granted asylum. He is making the case for the Biden administration to terminate so-called Asylum Cooperative Agreements with Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador as a necessary first step to restore U.S. leadership in upholding the right to seek asylum and in protecting refugees.
In a statement to the Herald, Menendez said he is ”no stranger to tough fights, especially as it relates to immigration reform.”
“Moving an immigration reform bill won’t be easy but I think it’s possible,” he said.
The DACA program was formed in 2012 during former President Barack Obama’s administration. Since then, it has allowed hundreds of thousands of young adults brought to the U.S. as children to avoid being deported back to their home countries. When the Trump administration took office in 2017, the program was slashed.
Almost three years later, the U.S. Supreme Court blocked the Trump administration’s 2017 effort to end DACA, but less than a month later hopes were destroyed again when Acting Homeland Security Secretary Chad Wolf issued a memo saying the agency would reject all DACA applications, despite the Supreme Court’s ruling.
Things changed once more in November when Judge Nicholas George Garaufis of the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of New York vacated that memo, ruling that Wolf had unlawfully ascended to the agency’s top job and had no authority to make any changes to DACA, which led to the ruling. Shortly after, United States Citizenship and Immigration Services complied with the recent ruling but didn’t dismiss the possibility of an appeal.
“I’ve been through so much with TPS,” said Yolnick Cadet, a Haitian healthcare worker and mother of five who lives in Riviera Beach. “But I always say that if I ever receive permanent residency, I will be the best version of myself. Because without a permanent solution, I always have to think what next, how will my life be and I am always wondering, ‘What about my children?’ ”
Cadet, 48, said while she has spent the last 11 years in the U.S. living in fear, her worry deepened under Trump as he campaigned to curb illegal immigration and terminate TPS.
“You came here to make a living and then you think, at any minute, you may have to leave behind everything you worked for,” said Cadet, who is among an estimated 60,000 Haitians granted TPS after Haiti’s devastating 2010 earthquake. “I am always living in fear. ... We are always worried about what’s coming next. Are we going back home? Where can I go? What can I do? We are always confused.”
She is not only welcoming the news of Biden’s proposal, but said she is praying that lawmakers accept it.
That sentiment is also shared by immigrant advocates who have decried Trump’s more than 400 executive orders targeting immigrants, asylum seekers and refugees. All, along with the hard-line deportation policies, have reshaped the U.S. immigration system.
“We are ready to mobilize Florida and I know if the Biden-Harris team shows they are serious about this, they will see how we can mobilize,” said Marleine Bastien, a Haitian community organizer and longtime supporter of comprehensive immigration reform. “It’s going to be an uphill battle. But I believe that it’s a battle that we can win.”
Bastien said a comprehensive immigration reform bill that covers everyone is way overdue, and she only hopes that lawmakers on both sides of the aisles are ready to put in the work.
“We cannot be scared to do the right thing. As Martin Luther King once said, it’s never too late to do the right thing and the time is now to do it.”
Pandemic, recession pose hurdles to passing reform
Immigration reform under any circumstance is challenging. While the Democrats will control the White House as well as the Senate, as a result of the runoff senatorial votes in Georgia, it has a razor thin majority.
It is also no guarantee of victory, say some as they recall 2009, when Obama was in the White House and immigration reform still failed to get passed despite Democrat control of the House and bipartisan negotiations. Back than, the U.S. was in the middle of the Great Recession. Todayit’s facing both a recession and a coronavirus global pandemic.
“The Biden administration is entering office in the middle of a massive economic collapse, a completely disastrous pandemic and vaccine rollout response, a literal insurrection at the Capitol and a threat to democracy itself,” said Tom Jawetz, vice president of immigration policy at the Center for American Progress in Washington. “The number of crises on this administration’s table is hard to fathom.”
Still, Jawetz believes that immigration can be a priority, noting that when Biden announced his campaign and decided he would build it around “restoring the soul of America,” it came after Charlottesville. In 2017, a violent clash erupted in the Virginia city and Trump came under fire after saying “there is blame on both sides,” giving the impression he put white supremacist groups and protesters on equal footing.
“A big part of how America lost its way over the past four years, is its attacks on immigrants and the destruction under the asylum protection systems under Trump,” Jawetz said.
Jawetz said he has not seen the language in the proposed legislation, but believes it is a positive position for the Biden administration to be staking out.
“We’ll see what materializes; we’ll see whether the Senate actually takes up that legislation quickly, if bipartisan conversations begin using that legislation as a starting point and we will see where Congress ends up,” Jawetz said. “I don’t think we know.”
In his first day in office, Biden’s executive orders immediately tackled several Trump immigration policies. He revoked travel and immigration restrictions on 13 Muslim and African countries, lifted limits which immigrants can be arrested and deported and undid a ban on undocumented immigrants being counted in Census figures.
While Jawetz is interested in seeing what the overall legislative strategy for Biden’s comprehensive immigration bill will be, he said Congress does have the opportunity to work on more bite-size pieces, including the Dream and Promise acts. Both passed the House in 2019 and can be passed again without delay and sent to the Senate for consideration. Congress can also address permanent protection for essential workers and their families, Dreamers, and TPS holders as part of the coronavirus relief and economic recovery package that is going to be a top priority.
At the same time, Biden has the power of executive order. He can use it to extend immigration protections, especially for DACA and TPS recipients while Congress debates if it will support his overhaul.
Biden has said that he plans to review TPS to see which programs ended by the Trump White House — including benefits for immigrants who fled El Salvador, Nicaragua and Haiti — could be reinstated.
But not all Dreamers are as convinced. Bartira Rodrigues, a 32-year-old from Brazil who lives in Homestead and works as a nanny, says she’s still skeptical about Biden’s plans panning out considering “how many heartbreaks Dreamers have already endured.”
“We’ve lived in a state of fear these last four years, a state of panic and uncertainty,” Rodrigues said. “All I want — we want — is to feel safe and secure in our futures; hopefully, Biden and all lawmakers can actually make these spoken promises become a reality.”
But advocates want more than just a review, or the kinds of extensions beneficiaries have seen under Trump as a result of ongoing court challenges. Advocates said while the incoming Biden-Harris administration on its own cannot provide TPS and DACA recipients a pathway to citizenship, it does have the ability to reverse the terminations on TPS that were put into place by the Trump administration and shore up protections for DACA.
In the case of Haiti, for example, attorneys representing plaintiffs in a New York federal lawsuit aimed at stopping Trump’s termination of TPS argued that the decision was “prearranged, premeditated from the beginning,” and based on “racial animus.” The federal suit was among more than a half dozen filed against DHS.
During closing arguments, attorneys cited government emails and other internal documents, including a handwritten November 2017 letter by Acting DHS Secretary Elaine Duke, to demonstrate that the White House was not interested in the facts about conditions in Haiti as DHS officials mulled over whether to continue to shield up to 60,000 Haitians from deportations, and Duke was under repeated pressure to terminate the program.
Lawyers also introduced into evidence a cable from the U.S. Embassy in Port-au-Prince that concluded Haiti was not ready to receive TPS holders. The cable was among several from senior U.S. diplomats in the region to top State Department officials that were disregarded despite the warning that the mass deportations of Central Americans and Haitians could destabilize the region and trigger a new surge of illegal immigration.
Immigration advocates want to see a redesignation of TPS for at the very least El Salvador, Nicaragua and Honduras and a new designation for Guatemala, citing the two hurricanes that hit the country late last year. Haitian advocates, citing the ongoing insecurity and lack of progress 11 years after the devastating earthquake that prompted the TPS designation under Obama, are also pushing for a redesignation.
“I absolutely think that the way the Trump administration conducted its reviews was both politically motivated and illegal,” Jawetz said. “It was illegal in a lot of different ways including in some cases, it was infected with racial animus.”
Miami Herald reporter Nora Gámez Torres contributed to this report.