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The Left’s Immigration Plan Under Biden

Influential Democrats in Congress are looking to do a whole lot more than overturn the modest reforms of the Trump administration.

Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-WA) is leading the leftward charge on Democrats' immigration policy. (By vasilis asvestas/Shutterstock)

With both chambers of Congress and the White House secure in the wake of the November elections, some Democrats see a popular mandate—or, at least, a free pass—to move full steam ahead with an immigration agenda more liberal than even that pursued under President Barack Obama. President Biden has already ordered a moratorium on all deportations (though a federal judge, in a sequence of events that has become rather familiar these last four years, recently struck that down). But it’s not the president who immigration critics should worry about the most; it’s an influential cadre in Congress—predominantly young, radically progressive, and ethnically diverse—who hope to push the Biden administration (already far from moderate) as far to the left as they can manage. On the deportation question and a host of other issues, the immigration agenda laid out would, if fully implemented, be the most radical in American history.

At a recent press conference announcing their immigration agenda—euphemistically titled “Roadmap to Freedom Resolution”—Democratic congresswoman Pramila Jayapal dropped all pretense that her faction intends to strike any kind of balance, protecting the border while providing amnesty: “For far too long Congress has approached immigration reform as a tradeoff: trading protections for some in exchange for enforcement. Now is the time to move away from that harmful dynamic and put forward a new set of principles that must underlie any piece of immigration policy that we pass.”

Congresswoman Jayapal was joined by five other members of Congress on the call: Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Victoria Escobar, Judy Chu, Yvette Clark, and Jesus “Chuey” Garcia. The press conference introduced in detail the Roadmap to Freedom Resolution, which Jayapal said was based on five principles:

  • Ensuring a fair immigration process that establishes a roadmap to citizenship for 11 million people while centering family unity and promoting and preserving diversity.
  • Welcoming immigrants by supporting integration efforts and ensuring access to critical public services.
  • Creating a just, humane way to uphold immigration laws, including by investing in humane, community-based alternatives to detention and creating scalable consequences for enforcement. This is possible by modernizing the system, ensuring judges have the ability to exercise discretion, and having reasonable, more humane options on the table.
  • Investing in border policy that protects the rights of communities in the borderlands and ends the mass militarization of the region.
  • Understanding that we must uphold the rights of all workers and that increasing protections for immigrant workers will lift up all workers—immigrant and American-born alike.

The moment seems opportune for such a bold agenda, and Jayapal is meeting it eagerly:

As a lifelong immigrant rights organizer who created the largest immigrant rights organization in Washington state before becoming one of only 14 naturalized citizens serving in Congress today, I know that we must do far more than simply reverse the harmful, xenophobic policies of the Trump Administration. Our immigration system has been broken for decades, and with a new president in office, we must finally reform it in a humane way that focuses on respect, dignity, family unity and real opportunity for all immigrants. Now that we have a Democratic White House and a Democratic Senate, I’m proud to work alongside my colleagues in the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, Congressional Black Caucus and Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus to introduce the Roadmap to Freedom as a north star for immigration reform that is fair, equitable, centers family unity and humanitarian protections, combats systemic injustices and works for everyone.

With a clean sweep of the relevant authorities, the immigration radicals’ de facto leader sees no need for moderation. “Detention is not the answer,” Jayapal stated. “Deportation is not the answer.”

On this second point, there is a marked departure from Democratic practice under President Obama. Though Obama favored DACA and other lax immigration policies, he also deported nearly three million people. It remains an all-time record, and prominent immigrant advocates took to calling him the U.S.’s “deporter-in-chief.”

In fact, it’s a central aspect of the proposed agenda that not just Trump-era reforms, but the fundamental principles of American immigration policy, must be overturned. “Reversing the policies of the last four years is not enough,” said Clarke. “We must reimagine the immigration system in a manner that is humane, just and fair. The time has come for the values of our nation to be reflected in our immigration policies.”

It becomes obvious at times that the extreme wing of immigration reform is part and parcel with the critical race theory and identity politics that have taken hold of the domestic left. “We have an opportunity to rewrite laws steeped in racism and white supremacy,” said Garcia.

Ocasio-Cortez, meanwhile, said that she hoped Biden would extend his executive order ending private prisons and end private detention facilities. “Even just yesterday with this incredible executive order, returning to this Obama era rule of ending private prisons, many of our movement said, ‘that’s wonderful; we need to end for-profit private detention facilities.”

The congresswoman also accused Trump’s ICE of “crimes against humanity” and called for an investigation and compensation to the victims. Only an activist, Laura Soto of the Colorado Immigrant Rights Coalition, called openly to defund ICE, but members of Congress, including Jayapal and Ocasio-Cortez, called for “ending the militarization” of the border.

“Communities like El Paso have been on the receiving end of inconceivable cruelty and inhumanity,” Texas’s Escobar claimed, striking a similar tone. “Billions upon billions have been used to militarize safe and vibrant communities.”

The Biden administration appears to be headed toward implementing this as policy. According to a memo obtained by BuzzFeed, ICE will focus on a narrow set of illegal aliens, considered threats to national security. BuzzFeed reports that ICE officials “direct officers to focus primarily on certain groups of immigrants, such as those suspected of being a national security threat and require high-level approval for street operations as part of a draft memo obtained by BuzzFeed News that, if implemented, would likely lead to a significant drop in arrests.”

The roadmap also aims to provide public aid to all immigrants—legal and illegal. “It ensures a fair immigration process,” Escobar said, “by supporting integration efforts by ensuring access to critical public services like healthcare and housing.”

The proposal in question also includes radical reforms to our asylum system. As early as 2014 during the Obama administration, huge groups of migrants—dubbed “caravans” by the media—began moving by land from Central America north to the U.S.-Mexico border. U.S. asylum laws made it easy to stay while an asylum claim was made, even as the process took years. Often these migrants were moved by human smugglers who coached them in how to make asylum claims.

In 2018, a caravan comprising thousands of people became a major political issue for the Trump administration. By 2019, President Trump had taken steps to fix the issue. He struck down the Flores Settlement Agreement, which mandated that minors who had entered the country illegally must be released after 20 days’ detention. More importantly, Trump struck deals with Mexico and other countries known as “safe third countries,” which would keep asylum seekers in those countries, rather than the U.S., during processing of their claims.

A recent article in Truthout suggests that, rather than an overhaul, the Biden administration only plans to update President Trump’s safe third country agreements for now, reporting that “the Biden administration has stated it intends to implement regional processing centers in Central America, explicitly stating that not all refugees would be resettled in the U.S.”

However, the six congresspeople presenting the Roadmap to Freedom Resolution were united in their opposition to those policies. “We should not criminalize people for seeking asylum,” Congresswoman Jayapal said. Ocasio-Cortez went further, applying the familiar language of the left’s domestic politics to the enforcement of immigration law: “Asylum seekers are being revictimized in refugee camps at the border.” For this faction, which includes some of the party’s rising stars, it seems no compromise is conscionable.

An early test of just how far the Biden administration will be pulled may be forced by the latest migrant caravan, which is well on its way to our southern border—and larger than any we’ve yet seen. If the radical congressional faction of Jayapal, Ocasio-Cortez, and company succeed in capitalizing on the moment, asylum laws may be relaxed to a point of virtual disappearance.

And we should not underestimate the momentum their endeavor has gained. In addition to the six members of Congress on the Roadmap to Freedom press conference, the plan is already endorsed by thirty others: Reps. Earl Blumenauer (OR-03), Cori Bush (MO-01), André Carson (IN-07), Danny Davis (IL-07), Adriano Espaillat (NY-13), Sylvia Garcia (TX-29), Jimmy Gomez (CA-34), Raúl Grijalva (AZ-03), Alcee Hastings (FL-20), Sheila Jackson Lee (TX-18), Hank Johnson (GA-04), Mondaire Jones (NY-17), Ro Khanna (CA-17), Barbara Lee (CA-13), Jim McGovern (MA-02), Grace Meng (NY-06), Eleanor Holmes Norton (DC), Ilhan Omar (MN-05), Chellie Pingree (ME-01), Mark Pocan (WI-02), Ayanna Pressley (MA-07), Jan Schakowsky (IL-09), Adam Smith (WA-09), Mark Takano (CA-41), Rashida Tlaib (MI-13), Ritchie Torres (NY-15), Juan Vargas (CA-51), Nydia Velázquez (NY-07), and Bonnie Watson Coleman (NJ-12).

Michael Volpe has worked as a freelance journalist since 2009, after spending more than a decade in finance. He’s based in Chicago.

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