We made it! It's 2021, and nearly half-way through February. While we're still amidst a deadly pandemic, there is light at the end of the tunnel as vaccinations become more available. We also have a new president, Joe Biden, which is very important for immigration law and policy. This year will also bring about a painful reckoning, as we reflect on 20 years since the US terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001. It is my hope that we find new perspectives looking back, to help us move forward and be better united.
Congress and the President's Immigration Plenary Powers
Our executive branch has great power over immigration rules, programs, and policies on how things function. Significant changes in the law, however, such as "comprehensive immigration reform," must pass through the US Congress. Meanwhile, President Biden has wasted no time making some changes to the former administration's approach on immigrant and refugee issues.
Biden's First 100 Days Rollbacks and New Orders.
In his first days in office, Biden issued several Executive Orders impacting immigration to reverse prior orders and create new programs. He lifted a Trump Order dubbed the "Muslim Travel Ban" that restricted issuing visas from certain countries (identified as predominantly Muslim populations). He also issued a moratorium on deportations for the first 100 days of his presidency, for the purpose of reviewing the system for unfair practices. The 100-day moratorium was recently blocked by a federal judge in Texas, and so this authority is now unclear.
Other Trump policy rollbacks are likely to proceed as planned, and more are being rolled out. Biden's administration has created Presidential Task Forces to review the fairness of the immigration system, to address causes of migration, and manage migration specifically throughout North and Central America. In early February 2021, Biden signed executive orders on family separation and asylum. He issued an order revoking certain past presidential actions on refugee admission and resettlement and announcing reforms. Biden's orders have also revoked Trump's asylum policies that have prevented thousands from seeking asylum in the U.S. and created a humanitarian catastrophe at our Mexican border.
President Biden has issued many important changes to executive policy and administration of immigration law, and some are calling for more. As the days and months ahead unfold, President Biden is likely to continue re-prioritizing the immigration system within his authority as president. Comprehensive reforms, such as providing lawful permanent residence and a pathway to citizenship to the millions of undocumented (or piecemeal changes such as better work visa programs for US farmers to legally hire migrant labor), will first need to go through Congress.
Meaningful Immigration Reform is Necessary Now!
Our Congress has failed to pass any meaningful immigration reforms since the late 1990s, and some may even say 1986.
The events of September 11, 2001 brought immigration reform to a stalemate. It halted our Congress from renewing measures that allowed certain immigrants with pending family visas to pay a fine to get the visa, even if they entered the US without status. The freeze on this option helped make way for the high number of undocumented immigrants in the U.S. These include many people who have US citizen family members to sponsor them but who cannot use their petitions to gain lawful status without leaving the country for up to 10 years. For most famlies, it is impossible and unfathomable to withstand a ten-year period of separation across continents, from your children and spouse. Relocation to another country for ten-years for the sake of a green card isn't worth the risk involved if your home country is poor and dangerous. So it makes sense that such people stay in the US without status, always fearing deportation, and without many freedoms that others enjoy.
Lacking Options and Deportations Result in Splitting Up Families. It's bad for our communities.
Indeed the lack of options for the undocumented population has damaged our interests in promoting family unity. Deportations increased by more than 100% between 2001 and 2013, and are still doubled from the 1990s. The immigrant population being held in detention facilities also skyrocketed from roughly 205,000 individuals in 2001 to almost 400,000 by 2018.
After 9/11, our immigration agencies restructured to prevent future terrorism, but the policies also became tighter on "everyday foreigners" already living here or wishing to come here. In 2019, more than half of immigrants detained had no criminal record, highlighting recent shifts in the Trump administration policy. Animosity and fear of immigrants has grown over the decades since 9/11. As this anger and fear have persisted, anti-immigrant rhetoric has also emboldened.
Increasing Waves of Backlash, Bigotry, and Fear.
In recent years we have seen increased acts of bigotry and hate crimes drawing headlines far too often. These events have grown bolder, but our voices in opposition have also grown stronger. We have marched for justice and the protection of Black lives, those marginalized, and other social causes. Despite our state of polarized politics, most Americans are desperate for healing and unity. We still are fearful of bad actors that continue to terrorize us, now taking shape with domestic threats matching and superseding foreign ones. We must be careful to stop and recognize that in scapegoating others we are only deflecting what is really going on. In short, we are pointing the finger without any ownership for our divisions.
Twenty Years since 9/11. It's Time to Unite and Heal.
This year we will honor the 20th anniversary of 9/11. My hope is for us to reflect on the heroes who triumphed that day, and on the consequences flowing from this public trauma. As we commemorate those events, we recall our country ripped open with palpable grief and anger. The hatred of those few vengeful actors upon thousands of innocent victims shocked our conscience at unmatched levels, and we reacted in normal ways. We grieved, we built defenses, we waged revenge, and we also scapegoated others. But we began a dangerous spiral of futility in scapegoating each other, as well.
It is my hope that this year, 2021, we can reflect on the past two decades with the wisdom of experience to understand how this contributed our current divisions. We need to seize on this time to spark meaningful conversation, with a good faith to achieve meeting of minds. We need to heal, to forgive one another, and work together. Our struggles will never end, but we can be better at taming them by NOT dehumanizing our enemies.
A Call to Renew Good Faith Civil Discourse and Hold Respect for Accountability.
What we're most missing right now is true civil discourse and a reverence of accountability. We first need to listen to each other with awareness to respectfully hear the other side, even if the opinons are painful to us and even invoke anger. Some people are fundamentally opposed to making immigration "easier." I believe that both sides have more values in common than we realize, but we are seeing each other through fun house mirrors. We do not see the real people or hear the full story.
I encourage every American this year to make an effort to really hear one another, to discuss our concerns without fury, to seek out misinformation, and try to understand the other side - even if we still disagree. We don't have to agree, but we should aim to respectfully negotiate toward common ground.
The US Congress has not set a good example to promote civil discourse on issues facing our nation. Congress must accept accountability for their part in causing our current divide. We should all acknowledge how 9/11 also stirred these divisions in ways that acts of terror are meant to achieve on their victims. This realization will be difficult but powerful. Without it, divisions will deepen. Americans will only continue to lose respect for our political system, to live with distorted beliefs about each other, and to turn on one another.
As for US immigration, politics leads immigration policy in a dramatic way. We know that things in Washington DC are caustic to say the least (an impeachment trial is underway as I write). These struggles, however hard, may also create opportunities. Let's seize on this moment as an inflection point to find common ground, and accomplish goals in those interests.
Looking back over the last 20 years, it is my hope that we will redirect ourselves toward unity. This includes making meaningful, sensible changes to improve the situation of immigrants in the US, and perhaps around the world.