Immigration Activists Want Biden's Reforms but Face Uphill Pandemic Passage

While immigration activists and Latino leaders were pleasantly surprised by the robust and progressive nature of President Joe Biden's proposed immigration reform, which includes comprehensive legislation and multiple executive orders to undo Donald Trump's policies, they must now turn to a harder job: passing the bill during a pandemic.

The magnitude of the task was described to The New York Times by former Trump senior adviser Stephen Miller, just hours before Biden's inauguration.

"A big push for a massive immigration bill in the middle of a pandemic will incite a lot of passion," said Miller, who shepherded immigration policy for Trump. "That is the fuel that can lead to a big midterm shellacking."

Miller is persona non grata among Democrats and activists, many of whom loathe him and weren't in the mood to have his quote read back to them. But the outgoing adviser's words are important insofar as they represent messaging that will be amplified on Fox News and right-wing media, and that could have a chilling effect on bipartisan negotiations toward an immigration law overhaul.

To that end, those who spoke with Newsweek dismissed Miller's take and said the pandemic has made the urgency of passing immigration reform plain for Americans to see.

"Miller told the exact same reporter family separation would be a 90/10 winning issue, and the opposite couldn't have been more true. Same with getting rid of DACA," said Todd Schulte, president of FWD.us, an immigration advocacy organization founded by Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg. "Support for immigrants is at an all-time high, so his political predictions are wrong time and time again."

Biden has thus far proposed an eight-year pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants, restoring and expanding asylum and refugee programs, and "smart," technology-based border security. His day one executive orders included restoring Obama's Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, which Trump repeatedly assailed and sought to end, as well as a moratorium on deportations for those who were already in the country as of November.

A source close to the Biden administration told Newsweek that January 29 will be the next day with a focus on immigration, through "aggressive" executive orders aimed at refugees, setting up the family reunification task force, and a new approach to the border and the Northern Triangle (Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador).

Polling during the campaign showed that Americans generally support immigration, and certainly at greater levels than Trump's policies suggested.

In June, the Pew Research Center found that 75 percent of Americans said "there should be a way for undocumented immigrants living in the U.S. to stay in the country legally if certain conditions are met." An October survey, by Civiqs and Immigration Hub, of 7,287 voters in battleground states found that 60 percent supported a pathway to citizenship, and their December poll found that 62 percent supported the DACA program.

Domingo Garcia, president of the League of United Latin American Citizens, was among the Latino leaders who met with Biden last week to preview his immigration plans. He told Newsweek he found Biden to be "genuine and sincere" on immigration but was blunt in telling him that Barack Obama made the same promises in 2008 regarding his first 100 days.

Biden responded by asking the Latino leaders in the room to be patient and "don't get on my case," Garcia said, because Trump's impeachment trial—which will keep the Senate busy—wasn't expected to be part of his first 100 days.

As for passing immigration legislation during a pandemic, Garcia said, "It's always the right time to do the right thing."

Héctor Sánchez, executive director of national grass-roots group Mi Familia Vota, was also at the meeting with Biden. He said it was a travesty of democracy to not invite top nonpartisan Latino groups to talk policy over the past four years, something Biden quickly rectified even before being sworn in. Sánchez challenged the idea that the pandemic presents a politically dicey time to roll out immigration legislation, echoing others who said the virus actually spotlights the need for reform.

"Immigrants are the ones that have been at the front lines dying to protect us, to protect our economy and to keep everything running, and the right thing to do is to create a process to legalization," Sanchez told Newsweek. "We are a nation that keeps exploiting immigrants on the one hand, and on the other hand won't give them a path to legalization. But the days of being anti-immigrant are over."

Still, the challenge is clear. On Thursday during a call with reporters, Senator Bob Menendez, who is a sponsor of the Biden bill, said that while there is a "moral imperative" to make the proposal law, advocates for the legislation will "have their work cut out for us" because of the need to convince 10 Republican senators to support it. He added that he had no illusions about the work ahead of them, while recalling that the 2013 Gang of Eight immigration bill was a "Herculean task."

But amid pandemic concerns, calls for additional economic relief and Biden's intention to make improving the economy a priority, Democrats noted that even in the newly purple state of Georgia, Senators Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff won their races while being strongly pro-immigration.

"COVID lends itself to Americans wanting a stable, healthy community and a path forward, so the pandemic is not a negative for immigration at all," another source close to the White House said. "Republican senators may be looking for a good point to restart bipartisanship, and this is a natural bipartisan issue. I wouldn't dismiss that."

While there is cautious optimism, immigration activists aren't putting all of their eggs in the legislative basket. Many who spoke to Newsweek theorized that legalizing essential workers like farmworkers and those who care for elderly Americans could be part of coronavirus relief measures, if the Biden administration's bold appetite on immigration holds.

"The pandemic has brought to light the inequities of the American system. But also, what happens when communities are exposed and don't have access to health care?" asked Jacinta González, a senior organizer for Mijente who leads work concerning immigration policy. "When there aren't actual protections for workers doing essential work, we all suffer."

biden kamala
President Joe Biden speaks about the coronavirus, as Vice President Kamala Harris looks on, before signing executive orders on January 21. Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty