Exclusive: Advocacy Groups Say Biden's 'Disappointing' Immigration Policies Don't Go Far Enough

Advocacy groups that began the year feeling cautiously optimistic about what the new administration was set to propose on immigration now say some policies "fall seriously short," and are calling on President Joe Biden to do more to help immigrants and reduce their prosecutions.

More than 160 immigration and criminal justice groups, stretching from San Diego to Cleveland and Atlanta, say simply doing away with Donald Trump's controversial zero-tolerance policy is not enough. They're calling for an end to Operation Streamline, which facilitates mass sentencing in court, a suspension of unauthorized entry and reentry prosecutions, and the termination of DHS contracts with private prisons.

"It's so incredibly disappointing that Biden reversed zero-tolerance but didn't give prosecutors any guidance on what do to stop accepting migration related offenses," said Jacinta Gonzalez of the advocacy organization Mijente that helped spearhead the letter. "He said he would phase out private prisons but didn't end contracts with private detention centers where most immigrants are being locked up."

The activists who spoke with Newsweek say their demands aren't pie in the sky: they're a natural response to the Biden administration ignoring what was in the Biden-Sanders unity task force recommendations during the campaign that included a whole host of policies around immigration.

Ending Operation Streamline, for example—which includes herding 80 to 90 mostly Latino men into courtrooms, who are asked to plead to charges read in English, and then sentenced in a couple hours—is included in the task force recommendations. They called for ending "mass prosecutions of individuals who cross the border without regards to the facts and circumstances of their cases, through practices like Operation Streamline, that deny individuals their right to a fair hearing and due process."

The task force recommendations also called to "end the use of for profit detention facilities and use detention as a last resort" and to reprioritize DHS budget away from detention "in favor of more cost-efficient measures, immigration services, and access to counsel."

Biden, however, studiously avoided supporting an end to criminalization of border crossing during campaign debates, a reflection of his long-standing stance as a senator and vice president that border security should also be included in calls for immigration reform. Two weeks since the inauguration, the president has proposed comprehensive immigration legislation that would create a pathway to citizenship for millions of undocumented immigrants and signed a slew of executive orders, including to strengthen the Obama-era DACA program and stop construction of a wall along the southern border.

The White House declined to address the specific asks from the letter, pointing Newsweek to a statement last week that said the executive order touches on Department of Justice-operated prisons, not those maintained by additional agencies—while adding that the Biden administration will take additional action in the future relating to the detention of undocumented immigrants.

Regarding zero-tolerance and family separation, the White House pointed to Biden's comments while signing the executive order last week that "My administration condemns the human tragedy that occurred when our immigration laws were used to intentionally separate children from their parents or legal guardians (families), including through the use of the zero-tolerance policy."

Activists told Newsweek they will fight alongside the administration on certain things like defending the 100-day moratorium on deportations that is stuck in court, but must continue to push Biden where they feel he isn't doing enough.

"To create a just and dignified immigration system we have to abandon cruelty as a deterrent or we're not going to get very far," Gonzalez told Newsweek. "We understand the moratorium is under attack and we're down to fight back against ICE, but we need a commitment from this administration that they're moving away from the rhetoric and policies that are so harmful."

"The ending of the zero-tolerance memo and relegating the Trump era to the ashes of history is incredibly important," said Jesse Franzblau, a senior policy analyst at the National Immigrant Justice Center, who was also among the activists who crafted the letter. But he said de-prioritizing prosecutions also includes revoking Jeff Sessions April 2017 memo on criminal immigration enforcement. "It's a high-priority issue for people continuing to suffer," he added.

Advocates wanted to give the Biden administration the benefit of the doubt because he had committed to moving forward an immigration platform that was rooted in racial justice, said Julie Mao, the deputy director of Just Futures Law, who also helped write the letter.

She said the executive orders and public statements from the White House on family separation were a "positive first step," but the reality is the ongoing prosecutions are based on existing memos and policies he has the power to reverse.

"Families are still going to get separated," she warned. "This is Biden's Department of Justice now, and he will be responsible for separating families. So there has to be additional action to stop these prosecutions and stop streamline from moving forward."

President Joe Biden in the Oval Office
President Joe Biden in the Oval Office Doug Mills-Pool/Getty Images