New citizens take the oath of U.S. citizenship outside of the U.S. District Courthouse in Minneapolis. Credit: Jaida Grey Eagle | Sahan Journal

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In one of his first official acts just hours after being sworn in, President Joe Biden signed a number of executive orders reversing policies that targeted the nation’s immigration system. 

Biden promised to repair immigration, and his actions were a first move to get past the harsh policies and rhetoric of the Trump administration. Sahan Journal outlined some of the major changes the Biden administration made Wednesday, and asked immigration experts how they will affect their clients and community members. These policies come as part of a larger plan to address the pandemic, immigration, and criminal justice reform within Biden’s first 100 days in office. 

Halting construction of the U.S.–Mexico border wall

The Biden administration will halt construction of the U.S.-Mexico border wall by ending the national emergency Trump declared in 2018 to divert billions of dollars towards construction. The U.S.-Mexico border wall was a cornerstone of Trump’s election campaign and subsequent presidency.

Rodolfo Gutierrez is the executive director of the Hispanic Advocacy and Community Empowerment Through Research (HACER-MN). 

“That’s going to be very positive, especially for countries south of the border,” Gutierrez said of the halt on construction. “It’s also going to be a big relief, because there was always this fear while construction was going on.”

Originally from Mexico, Gutierrez has conducted research on immigration, education, and healthcare for diverse communities. He added that the Latino community currently in Minnesota views this effort as a sign that the Biden administration hopes to rebuild the president’s relationship with them.

U.S. Customs and Border Protection says $15 billion of taxpayer dollars were committed to more than 700 miles of the border wall. The Supreme Court will hear arguments February 22 on the legality of diverting funds from the Department of Defense towards constructing the wall.

Ending the ban on travel from select Muslim-majority countries

Biden will end a ban on travel from several Muslim-majority countries that is widely known as the “Muslim ban.” Enacted during Trump’s first month in office, the ban restricts travel from Iran, Libya, Somalia, Syria, and Yemen. The Supreme Court upheld the travel ban in 2018, but removed Chad, Iraq, and Sudan from the list.

Hamse Warfa, the deputy director for the Department of Employment and Economic Development, served as an economic policy adviser in the Biden campaign. He said reversing the ban has been a priority for Muslims who served on the campaign, but he expects Muslims across the world will welcome this change.

“We’ve been pushing for this for a long time,” Hamse said. “I’m significantly relieved. We have family members who couldn’t come for healthcare needs, because of who they pray to and where they were born. Knowing that it’s lifted is a huge burden off of our shoulders.”

Veena Iyer, executive director of the Immigrant Law Center of Minnesota, said the Muslim community in Minnesota, many of whom have connections to people in Somali waiting to come to the United States, will particularly be affected by the reversal. 

While she welcomes the change, she added that there are a lot of changes the Biden administration will need to make. Iyer noted a few more barriers to immigrating to the United States: Consulates across the world are shut down due to the pandemic and refugee admission limits have been cut down to record numbers during the Trump administration.

“There’s a lot of investment that the Biden administration needs to make in processing those applications,” Iyer said, “so that people who have been affected by the ban for the last several years will actually be able to get processed and reunite with their families.”

Revoking an order excluding noncitizens from the U.S. Census

Biden will revoke a Trump executive order that excluded noncitizens from the 2020 Census, which determines the distribution of federal spending to states each year. 

An estimated 300,000 Hispanics live in Minnesota, but that number could be higher based on participation in the census. Gutierrez said he fears participation has been low because of a question about citizenship. As a result, Gutierrez said a significant portion of the undocumented community in Minnesota was probably already left out of the count.

Biden’s team said the new administration will ensure that the Census Bureau has enough time to complete an accurate count during the final stages of the census. Gutierrez said this is another sign of goodwill on the part of the Biden administration, but much of the damage has already been done.

“The data, from my perspective, is problematic already,” Gutierrez said. “Establishing that they are not going to be excluded from the final apportionment process is not going to change much.”

Renewing protections of the DACA program

With respect to the Obama administration’s legacy, Biden will renew protection for the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, known as DACA. A cornerstone policy of the Obama administration, DACA was first introduced in 2012. The effort provided young undocumented immigrations protection from deportation and a pathway to citizenship. 

A few interns at HACER-MN are DACA recipients. HACER-MN also collaborates with community leaders who receive DACA—some of whom are students—and Gutierrez said they’ve been integral in informing them of issues DACA recipients face.

Trump ordered an end to DACA in 2017. A legal challenge ensued and ended in June when the Supreme Court ruled it should be kept in place. 

“DACA-protected people are really resilient and they worked harder when they were attacked,” Gutierrez said of both his friends and colleagues. “They felt motivated to create new ways to keep working in their communities.”

About 700,000 people enrolled in DACA still await further government protection. Biden will call on Congress to pass the U.S. Citizenship Act of 2021, which would grant DACA recipients permanent legal status and a path to citizenship.

Offering a path to citizenship

That same legislation, if passed, would also offer 11 million undocumented immigrants a path to citizenship. It would grant green cards and an eight-year path to citizenship to anyone living in the United States before the start of this year. 

DACA recipients, immigrants with Temporary Protective Status, and certain immigrant farm workers would be immediately eligible for green cards. After three years, those green card holders can apply for citizenship. This effort could reduce the backlog of more than a million cases currently in immigration courts.

Iyer estimates that there are 90,000 families in Minnesota who might have an undocumented family member—parents of U.S. citizens or spouses of U.S. citizens, for example. Iyer added that there are thousands of DACA recipients and people with Temporary Protected Status in Minnesota who would benefit from a pathway to citizenship.

“That matches what their whole lives represent,” Iyer said. “Which is that they are, in fact, American, they’re contributing to our economy, they’re contributing to our community, and they just need a piece of paper to say it.”

Gutierrez echoed that sentiment and said that there are millions of undocumented people in the United States who aren’t just hiding—they’re also ineligible for government benefits they need to survive. A new pathway to citizenship will make it easier for undocumented people to find jobs.

“It’s going to allow us to establish new levels of knowledge of the actual needs that these communities have,” Gutierrez said. And as a result, he added that their presence will fortify local economies.

Reversing a Trump order increasing deportations

One of Trump’s first executive orders regarding immigration priortized the expedited removal of roughly 11 million undocumented people. The Biden administration will reverse this order and instead focus on national security and public safety threats.

“It was something that had certainly caused fear in the community, and rightfully so,” Iyer said. “It created the possibility of disappearances of people without their families even knowing what happened to them.”

While the deportation order was not heavily enforced in Minnesota, Iyer said that she hopes a new understanding of discrimination in the immigration and criminal justice system after four years of Trump will encourage the Biden administration to take a look at the ethics of deportations.

“The Trump administration had this sort of indiscriminate view of deportations and that certainly impacted our clients,” Iyer said. “But we’re also really concerned about a rewind to what was in place at the end of the Obama administration.”

While she welcomes the promises of the Biden administration, Iyer said that racism in the U.S. immigration system has been under scrutiny similar to that in the criminal justice system. To reinvigorate immigration policy moving forward, Iyer said she hopes the Biden administration will take those discussions into consideration.

Hibah Ansari is a corps member with Report for America, a national service program that places journalists into local newsrooms.