In Biden Commitment to Immigration, Activists See Echoes of Concerns With Obama

A recent report that stated immigration is not a top priority for the incoming Biden administration caused whiplash among some activists who were reminded of the oft-criticized approach of the Obama administration, while others said they will wait and see how the administration conducts itself in its early days with respect to the high-stakes issue.

Citing a person close to the transition, the NPR report said the view among many in Biden-world is that immigration activists have become too "adversarial," with policy demands that make Biden's team "uncomfortable."

The leak, while anonymous, frustrated some activists who fought Obama on immigration, only to be systematically targeted and marginalized by the Trump administration's hardline policies and rhetoric.

"It's just a pitiful thing to say," Erika Andiola, a constant critic of the Obama administration, told Newsweek. "I hope that's not a reflection of the Biden transition team."

Andiola said it was hard to assess how much an anonymous comment speaks for the incoming administration but said Biden's team can't say it won't prioritize an issue just because activists get under their skin.

"If it is true, I really hope they are not taking this approach because that was very much the approach taken during the Obama administration."

Obama instituted the DACA program that gave work authorization to young undocumented people brought to the country as children, but he consistently bristled behind the scenes at the actions and comments of activists, who pushed and criticized him.

Cecilia Muñoz, the domestic policy director under Obama who worked to ensure that DACA could withstand legal scrutiny in the courts, came under tremendous criticism by advocates then, and she now is on Biden's transition team.

The Biden transition team denied the NPR report is true to Newsweek and said Biden will work to ensure immigration policies are reflective of American values, including reversing controversial Trump executive actions.

"This starts with restoring order, dignity and fairness to our system and day-one actions to restore due process to give families the opportunity to seek asylum, reinstate DACA, and introduce immigration legislation that includes a pathway to citizenship," the statement said, adding that Biden is "committed to having an open dialogue with groups across a wide spectrum to ensure his administration is meeting the needs of the community."

Other activists said the stakes of the moment are too big to worry about what anonymous officials are saying.

The country faces a ton of challenges in the years ahead, but for those of us who have been working on immigration, what's clear and present in our minds is 11 million people are living without authorization because administrations for decades have refused to move forward and Congress has, in essence, abdicated its responsibility.
Ali Noorani, executive director of the National Immigration Forum

"The country faces a ton of challenges in the years ahead, but for those of us who have been working on immigration, what's clear and present in our minds is 11 million people are living without authorization because administrations for decades have refused to move forward and Congress has, in essence, abdicated its responsibility," Ali Noorani, executive director of the National Immigration Forum, told Newsweek.

Noorani, whose group has worked on immigration legislation in the past by fostering a climate that brings together faith, law enforcement, and business leaders, said Biden's pick to lead the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), Alejandro Mayorkas, who would be the first Latino and immigrant to lead the agency, shows the president-elect is ready to make real change on immigration policy.

Kerri Talbot, director of federal advocacy for Immigration Hub, similarly said Mayorkas is a good choice because he was "instrumental" in rolling out DACA as DHS deputy secretary and has been "accessible" to immigrant communities.

After the "pure exhaustion" of fighting Trump for four years, Andiola said she felt "relief" when Mayorkas was picked because he was one of the main actors inside the administration who got "creative" in seeing what could be done to institute the DACA program.

"Back in those days, it was such a big battle to get Obama administration to admit they could do DACA," she said.

But in immigration activist circles, there is opposition to the kind of language that says some immigrants are worse than others, and harsh enforcement must continue apace for others to avoid the spotlight and danger of becoming enforcement priorities.

From "deportations, criminalization of immigrants, to expanding detention centers," Andiola said she is worried Mayorkas will use the same rhetoric Obama did and "repeat the same mistakes."

One Democrat, who sympathizes with the goals of the immigrant rights movement, said championing policies like "stopping all deportations or no enforcement of immigration laws" is a bridge Biden never will be able to cross.

"Elizabeth Warren wouldn't do that, Bernie Sanders wouldn't do that, no one would do what they're asking them to do," the Democrat said. "You can have a debate about enforcement, but you have to have a platform of what it should look like. What you 100 percent cannot do is say you're against all enforcement. That's not a debate, then nobody takes you seriously, and nobody invites you to the table."

Cristina Jimenez, the co-founder of United We Dream, and an informal adviser for the Biden campaign on immigration policy, said she viewed the anonymous comments as a "lowering of expectations," which she found concerning.

But she flatly dismissed the idea that immigration activists ask for too much from leaders.

"The experiences of immigrant communities are rooted in the injustice, the pain, and the harm that has been perpetrated against our communities," she said. "The role movements and immigrant justice play is to push and ask for what our communities deserve. That would be the case with any administration, especially after the horrific torture our communities went through the last four years."

She said the work of Latino and immigrant organizations during the election was the difference for Biden in states like Arizona, Pennsylvania and Nevada because of the mobilization of young people and Latinos.

"The reality is we know our power," she said, "and because we know our power, we will push Biden to use his through executive and legislative action."

biden obama immigration
President Barack Obama, with Vice President Joseph Biden at his side, makes a statement on immigration reform in the Rose Garden of the White House on June 30, 2014. Dennis Brack/WHITE HOUSE POOL ISP POOL IMAGES/Corbis/VCG/Getty