For U.S. advocates of migrants and refugees, Jan. 20, 2021, couldn’t have come soon enough.
Joe Biden had barely been sworn in as the 46th president of the United States when he moved to quickly undo some of the pain they felt from the past four years.
He reversed his predecessor’s “Muslim ban” keeping people from some Muslim-majority countries from entering the U.S. He also strengthened a program for young adults who entered the U.S. illegally as children, a program President Donald Trump tried to end.
Biden also announced a 100-day halt on deportations and unveiled a preliminary plan to provide a path to citizenship for 11 million undocumented immigrants.
But just six days later, on Jan. 26, a federal judge in Texas — a Trump-appointee — temporarily blocked the new president’s executive order on deportations. Republicans in Congress also began signaling a fight ahead on any immigration legislation.
Some see a tough road, one paved with legal and political obstacles by those seeking to continue Trump’s legacy against immigration — legal and illegal. Others see it as an opportunity for the Catholic Church in the U.S., which long has favored immigration reform, to play a part in advancing several elusive pieces of legislation.
Writing Jan. 21 about Biden’s “U.S. Citizenship Act of 2021” for America magazine, J. Kevin Appleby, a board member of the Hope Border Institute in El Paso, Texas, said the proposal presents “a unique opportunity for the Catholic community to work with the administration to finally get immigration reform over the finish line.”
The proposed path to citizenship would legalize, in some form, large swaths of unauthorized immigrants in the country, a move welcomed by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and many affiliated faith-based organizations.
Some groups that would benefit include the young adults who arrived in the U.S. as minors and have protection under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, or DACA, as well as recipients of Temporary Protection Status, known as TPS.
But it also would grant temporary legal status and a path to citizenship to those who entered the country illegally for various reasons before Jan. 1, 2021, as long as they have no criminal record.
Ronald Reagan in 1986 was the last U.S. president to successfully rally Congress to pass legislation that legalized, on such a grand-scale, groups that had entered the country without permission to do so by granting 3 million people what some call “amnesty.”
Appleby, who has advocated in Congress for immigration reform in the past as director of migration policy at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and later at the Center for Migration Studies of New York, sees similar promise in Biden, who wasted no time sending a strong signal about the importance of reform during his administration.
“The introduction of the bill on the first day of the administration signals that President Biden is willing to spend political capital in his first term to get it passed — capital that two of his predecessors, George W. Bush and Barack Obama, were unwilling to spend until their second term,” Appleby wrote in his piece for America. “As a consequence, both Mr. Bush and Mr. Obama failed in their attempts to pass a bill.”
Some Catholic organizations and leaders already have been making appeals to the new president.
On Jan. 28, five U.S. bishops who serve along the border, along with Sister Norma Pimentel, a Missionary of Jesus, who works with immigrants near the border town of McAllen, Texas, and other Catholic leaders and organizations, including the Hope Border Institute, sent a letter to the new president. It accompanied a list of policy recommendations.
“We must urgently begin a new process of mutual engagement that allows us to rediscover as sisters and brothers those whose dreams have been shattered by broken immigration policy. We must re-learn to see those who continue to flee to the border as neighbors in need,” the letter said.
“We need grace to dream new dreams as well as repentance and courage to recognize all of the ways in which our country has produced harm and continues to harm migrants and their communities,” it said.
“And we must come to see as citizens of a common home those in Mexico and Central America who imagine a future where their children are offered security and hope,” it added.
But the hopes behind the letter don’t depend solely on Biden.
While Biden was able to lift the so-called Muslim ban with an executive order, fears about new coronavirus variants entering the U.S. have resulted in travel bans enacted by or reaffirmed by the Biden administration for those entering the country from Brazil, South Africa and Europe — where more contagious strains are rampant. Other countries could soon be added.
But it’s also unclear how Biden will undo Trump-era directives that provided incentives to Central American countries to keep immigration at bay.
Recently, after an online meeting between Salvadoran Foreign Minister Alexandra Hill Tinoco and the Biden administration’s Charge d’Affaires Brendan O’Brien of the U.S. Embassy in San Salvador, both governments issued a joint declaration saying that “migrants who cross the U.S. border irregularly will be returned in accordance with legal procedures that guarantee their safety.”
While it seemed to be referencing public health measures, it also said that “the United States recognizes the work promoted by the government of El Salvador to discourage irregular migration and implement measures that guarantee the application of the law against human traffickers.”
The language hearkened back to prior agreements with the Salvadoran government under Trump, whose administration provided financial incentives to the country if it controlled migration of its citizens.
While Biden may be able undo some of Trump’s most restrictive immigration policies, restrictions at border crossings due to COVID-19 and would-be migrants’ inability to show up with documentation showing a negative test result already has set back groups trying to enter.
Public health measures to keep COVID-19 out of the United States, not immigration policy, may still keep migrants out until the pandemic is brought under control.
In mid-January, a large group — which has become popularly known as a caravan — gathered to cross from Honduras at a border point near Guatemala. But officials from the U.S., along with Mexico, El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras said they would prohibit passage and send back anyone trying to cross the border without proper documentation.
This documentation no longer refers to just immigration papers, but a recent negative COVID-19 test, which can cost around $150.
But chaos erupted as authorities beat would-be crossers back. The large crowd included children trying to cross the border.
Still, those like Appleby believe a Biden administration and changing attitudes of Americans about immigration signal the right time to make a new at attempt at immigration reform.
“This time the fate of immigration reform legislation could be different than in years past, as polls show that Americans have grown more supportive of immigrants during the Trump era, not less,” he wrote. “The Catholic community, working with a Catholic president, can play a key role in ensuring a positive outcome.”