How Advocates Pushed The Biden Administration To Take Immediate Action On Immigration
For months, the situation along the southwest border has been one of stasis, tension and danger. As migrants have attempted to enter the United States, they’ve been repelled by Border Patrol, acting under a Trump administration order that barred almost all asylum processing during the length of the pandemic.
Those expelled by Border Patrol either tried to enter the country without detection, returned to violent and ecologically ravaged home countries, or stayed in pandemic-stricken border cities, waiting for the moment that the United States begins to once again fulfill its international commitments to asylum.
On Wednesday, that day finally came as President Biden signed several executive orders regarding immigration on the first day of his presidency. These included a call for Congress to grant permanent status and a path to citizenship for DACA recipients and changes to arrest priorities for Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
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Crucially for those on the border, late Wednesday night, the Department of Homeland Security announced that it would take the unprecedented step of pausing almost all deportations for 100 days, set to begin on Friday. It also announced it would surge resources to the southwest border in an attempt to process thousands of asylum seekers for entry into the U.S.
There are an estimated 15,000 asylum-seekers in Baja California, who either were denied the chance to apply for asylum, or were sent back there under the controversial "Remain in Mexico" program. That program, also known as the “Migrant Protection Protocols,” stopped processing new individuals on Wednesday night, by order of the Biden administration. Under Remain in Mexico, asylum-seekers have been waiting up to two years in Mexico for an asylum hearing in the United States.
Planning for defusing the situation at the southern border has been going on for weeks, since shortly after Biden was declared the winner of the presidential election. These conversations have been between various stakeholders in border cities, including lawyers who have been working with asylum-seekers throughout the Trump administration, and Biden’s transition team.
On the campaign trail, Biden and his team had shown an interest in quickly addressing issues at the border. That wasn’t a given, considering immigration took a far back seat to the pandemic during the general election.
“I think the first step, and perhaps the deepest commitment of the Biden administration, is to restore some sense of the rule of law to what’s going on at the border,” said UCLA law Professor Hiroshi Motomura. He believes the Biden administration has shown a genuine interest in solving the humanitarian crisis along the border. “But there are a lot of steps that need to be taken first.”
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A coalition of local officials and immigrant advocacy groups known as the California Welcoming Taskforce, in conjunction with the president’s transition team, began to outline ways the Biden administration can begin to quickly process thousands of asylum-seekers along the southern border, and allow them to safely enter the United States.
But a main obstacle to achieving quick action was that the Trump administration wasn’t communicating at all with the incoming Biden team, meaning any physical action on the border would have to wait until the Biden administration was in office, and had installed their own officials.
“I think we’ve seen the administration backtrack from some of the day one promises to a sort of a ‘we need to do some work before we fulfill said promise,’” said Erika Pinheiro, a lawyer for the organization Al Otro Lado, which works with asylum-seekers stuck in Tijuana. "It's not just the head of the Department of Homeland Security that would need to change. We'd need significant changes throughout the whole system for something like mass processing of those in Remain in Mexico to work. I don't expect it on day one, but I do expect an immediate improvement from the (Trump) administration."
The challenges for this group have been immense. Even before the pandemic virtually ended asylum along the southern border, the Trump administration had upended the asylum system through a slew of new restrictions and rules.
“We understand the Biden administration is facing serious challenges due to the extreme measures the Trump administration took to undermine asylum law and dismantle immigration law,” said attorney Margaret Cargioli of the Immigrant Defenders Law Center.
On Tuesday, asylum-seekers in Tijuana held a press conference, asking the Biden Administration to take quick action.
“Immediately eliminate the metering list and invest in more USCIS personnel and capacity to more quickly attend to migrants,” asked Félix, a Honduran asylum-seeker sent back to Mexico under the Remain in Mexico program.
Advocates and asylum-seekers have urged the administration to begin sidestepping Customs and Border Protection, which manages the country’s ports of entry. Leadership of the agency has been hostile to many of the Biden administration’s priorities. Lawyers like Cargioli believe the Biden administration can find more help elsewhere in the government.
“The Biden administration should look into other facets of the government that can take away any legal, humanitarian-type cases away from basically a police enforcement agency,” Cargioli said.
Echoing the asylum-seekers’ requests, the Biden administration has already floated a stepped up role for the asylum officers and the state department at the southern border. The Wednesday night order to send more immigration agency resources to the southern border shows it could be taking immediate action on that front. It’s possible the processing of asylum-seekers along the southern border could begin within the next few weeks, if not days.
Once processed, the first stop for many of these asylum-seekers in San Diego will be a shelter run by Jewish Family Service of San Diego, in conjunction with the county. With a pandemic still raging on both sides of the border, the logistics of processing and sheltering these asylum-seekers has become more complicated than in the past.
“We’ve seen historically asylum-seekers coming to our care in very stressful situations,” said Kate Clark, the senior director of immigration services at Jewish Family Service. She said the shelter is up to the task of housing asylum-seekers during a public health emergency. “We have the gift of time to be able to plan for these larger numbers. Before, when we’d be given the number of asylum-seekers that would come into the shelter the day of, we didn’t have that opportunity.”
After a few days at the shelter, asylum seekers will continue their immigration case from inside the U.S. It’s possible they’ll be navigating a very different asylum system from those that came before them. And asylum-seekers and their advocates on both sides of the border will have played a major part in that change.