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Immigrant advocates disappointed with Biden in 2022

2022 was an eventful year for immigration policy. KPBS border reporter Gustavo Solis spoke with experts frustrated with President Joe Biden’s inability to roll back some of the Trump-era immigration policies.<br/>

Lawyers and advocates who work with immigrants say 2022 was the year they lost patience with President Joe Biden.

They’ve been waiting since he won the 2020 election to roll back Trump-era immigration policies.

“We certainly had hoped that we would be a lot further along at this point in the administration in restoring access to asylum at the border,” said Blaine Bookey, legal director at the Center for Gender and Refugee Studies.

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Although the Biden administration has made some attempts to end programs like Remain in Mexico and Title 42, legal challenges continue to keep those controversial Trump programs alive.

Title 42 is a public health order that allows border officials to turn away migrants — including vulnerable asylum seekers — at the border without giving them a court hearing. The program was scheduled to end on Dec. 21, but the Supreme Court kept it alive after 19 conservative state attorneys general asked to join the case.

Remain in Mexico is a Trump-era program that forces migrants with open asylum claims in immigration court to live in Mexico while those cases are adjudicated. This program is currently on pause, but a federal lawsuit currently under appeal could bring it back this year.

Together, these policies have radically changed the political discourse around asylum, Bookey said.

“They have completely flipped our understanding of asylum,” she said. “They have made it seem like access to asylum at our border is an aberration, when actually, it’s these policies from the last few years that are the aberration. For 40 years before that, people were able to come to the border and seek asylum.”

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Meanwhile, Republicans campaigned during the midterm elections on the notion that Biden has been too soft on immigration and created a crisis at the border. Far right members of Congress have gone so far as to call on Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro N. Mayorkas to resign or face impeachment.

But advocates say Trump’s ongoing influence in our immigration system goes beyond asylum seekers. Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals — or DACA — is still under threat; and Trump’s border wall continues to be built in San Diego.

DACA is an Obama-era executive order that gives a work permit and deportation protection to undocumented migrants who were brought into the U.S. as minors before 2007. Trump tried to end the program in 2018.

“That means it’s been over four years since anyone’s been able to apply for the program,” said Aaron Reichlin-Melnick, a policy director for the American Immigration Council.

People who already had DACA can renew their status, but the program is not allowed to accept new applicants. Additionally, there is currently no path to legal immigration status for DACA recipients, Reichlin-Melnick added.

Despite two years of Democrat control of the White House and Congress, nothing has changed.

“As of today, Dreamers and other undocumented youth have just as much insecurity in their lives as they did last year,” Reichtlin-Melnick said.

Another flashpoint is Friendship Park, located along the border south of Imperial Beach. Advocates spent most of 2022 fighting a Customs and Border Protection (CBP) plan to replace the existing fence along the park with a wall that is twice as high.

Friendship Park is the only spot along the U.S./Mexico border where families from one side can meet, and actually hug, relatives on the other side. The park has a gate that allows people into a space between the primary and secondary border walls. Over the years, it has been the site of birthday parties, reunions and weddings.

But CBP’s planned replacement fence doesn’t have a gate.

“President Biden said not one more foot of border wall,” said Pedro Rios, the director of the U.S./Mexico border program for American Friends Service Committee. He added that the public hasn’t had access to Friendship Park since 2020.

In Tijuana, advocates say Trump-era asylum policies have led to crowded shelters and unsafe conditions for migrants.

Erika Pinheiro is the executive director of Al Otro Lado, a Los Angeles-based legal aid organization that works with migrants stranded in Mexico. She said the makeshift shelters have become places where vulnerable people are being taken advantage of and subjected to unsafe conditions.

“We have seen the proliferation of these really informal shelters,” Pinheiro said. “Some, I wouldn’t even call a habitable building. There are rodent infestations, people exposed to the elements, and serious safety issues. Then you have some shelter directors stealing donations and exploiting migrants.”

Pinheiro also spoke of racial inequities tied to Title 42. It gives border agents the discretion to let particularly vulnerable migrants into the U.S. by granting exemptions on a case-by-case basis. However, white European migrants had easier access to those exemptions than black and brown migrants from Latin America.

She doesn’t see that dynamic changing in 2023.

“I think, by and large, it’s Black and indigenous migrants who are left out,” Pinheiro said. “It’s not a fair process now and I don’t see the administration making plans to make it a fair process even after the end of Title 42.

Yet, advocates see some rays of hope. Bookey pointed to a recent poll showing the majority of Americans — both Democrats and Republicans — support the idea of giving vulnerable migrants a chance to seek asylum.

“I think the example of the Ukrainians just helped highlight for Americans what is the purpose of the U.S. asylum system and why people need to come through the border sometimes and access that protection,” she said.