As Biden Makes Immigration Reform Push, Activists Double Down on 'Accountability'

When immigration activists and Latino leaders met with President Joe Biden on Zoom two weeks before his inauguration, they echoed the term accountability.

Despite liking what they were hearing about the dual track the administration was on in terms of comprehensive legislation as well as executive actions, Domingo Garcia, president of the League of United Latin American Citizens, told Biden they would hold him "accountable." This came despite Biden exhorting the group not to "get on his case" because Donald Trump's late-stage impeachment trial was an unexpected use of the Senate's time during the precious first 100 days of the president's term.

The focus on accountability continued Monday, with some of the top immigration organizations in the country joining forces with labor groups to launch the We Are Home campaign, which will be helmed by Nathaly Arriola, a former Obama administration official who led the Need to Impeach campaign against Trump.

"Accountability is key. We're not giving the administration a free pass," Arriola said, adding that "there is no reason to believe they won't deliver on the promises they made."

Like others pushing for immigration reform who spoke to Newsweek, she argued that the organizing and electoral work of a broad number of organizations contributed to why the Democrats are now in power. "There's a reason they're in control, and we hope the White House and Congress continue to be in lockstep with the American people and the movement that helped put them in power," Arriola said.

Activists are holding their fire and creating coalitions to hold the Biden administration accountable to campaign promises amid the urgency facing the immigrant community. At the same time, they are leaving open the possibility of intensifying public pressure should efforts in Congress stall, or planned executive orders or implementation of those orders fall short in their view.

Despite executive orders in the first 48 hours to strengthen the Obama-era Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, end the so-called Muslim travel ban, and institute a 100-day moratorium on deportations for immigrants at risk of removal who arrived after November, Friday is being called "immigration day" by some Democrats and activists.

They will be scrutinizing the contents of the orders that are expected to concern the controversial "Remain In Mexico" policy applied to asylum seekers, institute a family reunification task force, and take a new approach to the border, as well as Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador, sources told Newsweek.

Erika Andiola, a veteran of immigration battles over the past decade, whose group Refugee and Immigrant Center for Education and Legal Services (RAICES) offers pro bono legal services to migrant families in detention in Texas, said she will be looking to see if there are any changes to family detention. She said she was heartened by the new blood in the Biden administration, which includes Democrats and activists familiar to the advocacy world, like Tyler Moran and Pili Tobar. But she did not rule out escalating public pressure, including protests against the White House, depending how the coming months develop.

"If the administration and the president return to practices from the Obama era, they're definitely going to see us in the streets, while of course being mindful in the time of COVID," she told Newsweek.

Implicit in the careful but clear markers set down by activists is that while Senate Republicans could derail immigration legislation, that will not be the end of their advocacy to change realities on the ground in Latino and immigrant communities.

"It doesn't hurt to remind the administration of their commitments, to keep pressure on their commitments but also to acknowledge what they're doing well," said Cristina Jimenez, who served as an informal adviser to the Biden campaign on immigration. She is also a leader at United We Dream, which is part of the new We Are Home campaign.

Monitoring some policies doesn't end with Biden's signature, Jimenez said. Regarding the moratorium on deportations, for example, she said that it will be up to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement and Border Patrol agents to implement policies as well. If they don't, groups will take the legal route, bringing cases to immigration judges, but also pressure the White House and Department of Homeland Security chief Alejandro Mayorkas, once he is confirmed.

"We celebrate victories so far because it means people's lives are changing, from DACA to the Muslim ban to the moratorium, but there is a lot more work to do on accountability from the administration to DHS," Jimenez said.

The letter announcing the We Are Home campaign began and ended with the declaration that, regarding an overhaul of the immigration system, "this is the year."

Andiola, who has taken part in the fights of the past, couldn't agree more.

"We are not going to stop without some sort of relief, even if the bill in Congress were to fail," she said.

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A migrant holds a sign reading "Biden: enlight the way for a humane immigration reform" as advocates and migrants demonstrate at the San Ysidro crossing port in Tijuana, Mexico, on January 19. Guillermo Arias / AFP/Getty