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February 20, 2021

Immigration reform: Biden praised but advocates strategize for more

On his first day in office, President Joe Biden sent an immigration agenda to Congress that included citizenship plans for the undocumented and shorter green card wait times. He also used executive orders to lift the Muslim travel ban and rescind the Remain-in-Mexico policy.

And just this week, Democrats in Congress introduced an immigration bill backed by the president.

Some would call the efforts, sweeping.

But the immigration lawyers and advocates gathered at the American Bar Association Midyear Meeting say the reforms are just “a good start.”

Participating in a Feb. 19 online discussion “Rebuilding America’s Immigration System: The First 100 Days of a Biden-Harris Administration,” the frontliners say that getting comprehensive reform passed in Congress is their ultimate goal.

“This is the moment. We can do longer wait to deliver relief to our community,” said panelist Marielena Hincapie, executive director of the National Immigration Law Center, who called the U.S. immigration system outdated and “completely unacceptable.”

Hincapie shared the virtual stage with Democratic U.S. Rep. Sylvia R. Garcia from the 29th District of Texas, and Mary Giovagnoli, senior legal counsel at Kids in Need of Defense.

“In 2013 we failed to get the message across that immigration reform is something that should matter to everyone,” Giovagnoli said, underscoring her belief that such reforms fuel the rest of the economy, improve the diversity of the nation and boost the country’s ability to innovate through the fresh contributions of the newly arrived.

Panelists agreed that, unlike eight years ago, when reform stumbled under the Obama administration, the timing may be right to finally get immigration legislation passed. 

But getting a reform bill to the finish line and what it will look like was a cause for debate.

Rep. Garcia opposes piecemeal legislation, while Hincapie says taking an “all or nothing” approach would be a mistake because of the politics involved.

“I’m sure it’ll get out of the House,” said Garcia of comprehensive legislation. “Our challenge will be in the Senate where we’ve got even some Democrats who have problems with parts of our bill.”

“There are some people who would like to ‘piecemeal’ it: Pull the DREAMers out. Pull the farm workers out,” continued Garcia. “But if you start piecemealing… everybody forgets the whole purpose of keeping families together and making sure there is a path to citizenship for everyone.”

But, with a 50-50 split in the Senate and a slim Democratic majority in the House, Hincapie said “the math makes it look really difficult” to get the support of nearly a dozen Republicans.

“We absolutely need to put in the work to get those 10 Republicans,’’ Hincapie said. But we can’t wait another four or eight years. We’ve got to deliver this year, she emphasized.

Hincapie suggests a focus on three areas of legislation: one to provide a path to citizenship for immigrant youth, another focused on temporary protected status and DED (Deferred Enforced Departure) families, and a third to aid farm workers and essential workers.

With just these bills, she said, “we’re talking five to seven million people. That’s huge.”

“Rebuilding America’s Immigration System: The First 100 Days of a Biden-Harris Administration” was moderated by Wendy Wayne, chair of the ABA Commission on Immigration and director of the Immigration Impact Unit at the Committee for Public Counsel Services.

The program was jointly sponsored by the ABA Commission on Immigration and Section of Civil Rights and Social Justice.