Kai: This is The Takeaway. I'm Kai Wright sitting in for Tanzina Vega. I normally host The United States of Anxiety on WNYC Sunday evenings in New York and it's podcast as well. I will be with you today as Tanzina gets a break. Thanks for joining us.
Joe: America stories depends not on any one of us, not on some of us, but on all of us on we, the people. That's the task before us.
Kai: It's the first full day in office for president Joe Biden. Yesterday in one of his very first actions, he sent immigration reform legislation to Congress. The bill marks a sharp turn in the conversation about immigration in the Capitol. It includes an eight-year timeline to grant citizenship to roughly 11 million undocumented immigrants currently living in the United States. It also allocates billions of dollars in funding to Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala, part of the plan to improve some of the conditions that lead many migrants to leave their countries in the first place.
Jen: The US Citizenship Act, modernizes our immigration system. It provides hardworking people who have enriched our communities and lived here for decades and opportunity to earn citizenship.
Kai: Newly installed Press Secretary Jen Psaki talked about the bill at her first press conference yesterday
Jen: The President's priority reflected in the bill are to responsibly manage the border, keep families together, grow our economy, address the root causes of migration from central America.
Kai: It's a notable change after four years of hard-line immigration policies from the Trump administration. Although some immigration advocates have criticized the eight-year path to citizenship as longer than they had hoped for, a number of advocacy groups have expressed their support. Meanwhile, prominent congressional Republicans were quick to criticize the legislation. Iowa Senator Chuck Grassley and Florida, Senator Marco Rubio have both called the proposal a non-starter that's quote. Senator Rubio notably was part of the bipartisan group of senators who led the last meaningful immigration reform debate in Congress back in 2013. With Democrats slim majority in the Senate, getting an immigration overhaul done under president Biden will require support from the GOB.
Here with me now to discuss is Elora Mukherjee, professor and director of the Immigrant Rights Clinic at Columbia Law School. Thanks for being here, Elora.
Elora: Thank you for having me, Kai.
Kai: Also with us is Dara Lind, a reporter covering immigration policy for ProPublica. Welcome to the show, Dara.
Dara: Hi, Kai. Thanks for having me on.
Kai: It's maybe a shame to start with the politics and maneuvering of this, Dara, but it is obviously going to face a huge hurdle in Congress. It's in some ways surprising that President Biden chose to lead with this fight. Why is he prioritizing immigration reform right off the bat?
Dara: It's actually an open question to what extent he is even prioritizing immigration reform. Obviously, there's a difference between having bill text ready to go on day one and sending the message to Congress that this is the thing I want you to do first and he's not doing that. It's been very clear that both President Biden and Democrats in Congress want to do COVID relief first. Even that they have said, they may not get a bill on his desk until March. The question really is, is this bill that was introduced yesterday something that they want to happen immediately after COVID relief, which no one has said explicitly? Is it something they want to happen after COVID relief and climate change? Where does this fit on the legislative agenda?
Frankly, majority leader, Chuck Schumer said yesterday, listed his priorities for the coming term, mentioned a few things, didn't mention immigration among those key priorities. There really is an open question, the Biden administration is sure treating this as something more than just a messaging bill or a vision bill, but how much political capital they actually want to spend on it is really not clear right now.
Kai: It's interesting because it seems like a very serious bill. As you've said, in previous rounds of this, this would be the whole year's worth of legislative calendar to deal with it. Let's talk about the bill itself in any case. I mentioned the eight-year pathway to citizenship for immigrants without legal status. What would this actually look like in practice?
Dara: When people say an eight-year path to citizenship, that actually that's from the date of enactment and would for that matter include any immigrant who's in the country as of January 1st of this year, which is pretty generous. That's not obviously the only requirement, but it's a pretty generous cutoff point and would go to the point where they would be allowed to apply for citizenship. That's not only a shorter than past attempts of legalization have been, but it actually allows them to spend only three years after getting green cards to apply for citizenship, which shortens the time for immigrants under current law that's a five-year period at minimum.
It sounds like a long time, but it's a very expedited path. Then it's further expedited for people who currently have a deferred action for new currently have DACA or people who currently have CPS under the logic that they have already been living in the US able to work legally that they are already in the system in a certain extent, have been vetted, et cetera. It's a fairly progressive attempt to add a legalization program by that standard.
Kai: Elora, as somebody who has worked directly with asylum seekers and refugees, what stands out most for you in the proposed bill?
Elora: What stands out most for me is what the administration has done in the past 24 hours. In the past 24 hours, what we've seen is a welcome break from the unrelenting racism and xenophobia for the past four years. Just to put the past 24 hours in context, I want to mention that during the Trump years, we saw about 900 executive actions that changed immigration law and policy that were designed to inflict pain and terror on immigrant families and communities. It's remarkable that this legislation was introduced on day one. In addition to the legislation, what we've seen over the past 24 hours is seven executive actions designed to bring the United States back into compliance with both domestic law and international law obligations.
What that includes is first the repeal of the Muslim ban and the African ban and a requirement that the department of state restart visa processing. Second, we're seeing a pause on deportations for 100 days to allow the Department of Homeland security to reassess its priorities for who should be caught up in the immigration detention system. Third, we see an executive order that's designed to protect dreamers. Fourth, an executive order that halts the construction of the border wall. Another executive order stops the processing of people into migrant protection protocols, a farcically named program that requires tens of thousands of asylum seekers to remain in Mexico often in squalid conditions in refugee camps. Sixth, what we saw is an executive order designed to ensure a fair and complete census that counts all people in every state. Finally, we saw an executive order blocking the deportation of Liberians.
Whereas during the Trump years cruelty was immigration policy, it seems that the Biden administration is committed to making the most out of this opportunity to build a fair, humane, and functional immigration system. There's a lot to be done through executive action even if the legislative piece of this is more difficult.
Kai: Can I just ask you because you mentioned you tick through those quickly on the lifting of the travel ban. Wat does that actually mean in terms of the lives of some of the folks who have been been impacted by that ban?
Elora: The Muslim ban and the African ban are two untold stories of family separations during the Trump years. What these bans have resulted in is thousands and thousands of families unable to reunite because of religious discrimination and national origin discrimination and racism. What the lifting of these bands does is requires the department of state to again process visas for the countries that are affected by these bans. This raises the potential for thousands of fiances and spouses to reunite with each other, for mothers to reunite with their children, for students from these countries to pursue their dreams of higher education in the United States. This is life-changing for many people affected by these bans.
Kai: Dara, going back to the bill itself. The democratic party approach to immigration reform has for a long time been this idea that they would trade ramped up enforcement at the border for pathways to citizenship. This bill seems like an effort at that bargain. What's on the enforcement side of it?
Dara: It's not, actually. This is really the defining feature of this bill and why there's been so much enthusiasm from the immigrant rights' community about it is the Biden administration instead of-- This is the flip side of what we were talking about earlier about the questions about its path to passage. The reason that it's not at all clear how you can get 10 Senate Republicans on board if you were planning to do the reconciliation route, or how you can get this through the Congress is that it doesn't have the major enforcement trade offs that we're used to seeing. What they're doing instead is treating this as an opportunity to take a regional approach, which is something that President Biden was very interested in as a vice president, something the Democratic Party has really come around on to border management instead of border security, and including a lot of--
Kai: I think we've lost Dara a bit there.
Dara: -American countries. The question, of course, if you needed to get any votes, how would you add Republicans to that bill? If you had to add enforcement to the bill to get Republican votes, would you lose the democrats and advocates who are so enthusiastic about it now.
Kai: Are there any other differences from the Obama approach in this? You ticked through a couple of those, but what else would stand out for you about how this is a big shift from how the Obama administration handled it?
Dara: Honestly, when Obama came into office in 2009, their first priority was making it clear to Republicans they were serious about enforcement in order to pass a bill. Instead, with Biden, we have this rapid scaling back of enforcement on day one. There does appear to be a demand to Republicans to meet democrats where they are rather than the vice versa.
Kai: So that it's not being drawn in one direction or the other, it's not being drawn to the right as soon as the negotiation begins, which has been the critique of immigration reform for all of these years. Just very quickly, it would not take effect in people who have been in the States since January 1st are the only people who would be who would apply correct Dara?
Dara: Yes, but if this were to somehow pass and get the President's signature which is not clear.
Kai: Elora, you've witnessed some of the unsanitary conditions for migrant children detained in Texas for weeks by Customs and Border Protection under the Trump administration. Are there steps by the Biden administration that are coming or that we've seen that can make sure that what those children went through doesn't happen again?
Elora: I don't have personal insight or knowledge about changes related to the Flores settlement agreement which protects the safety and well being of children in federal immigration custody, but what I expect is at least minimal compliance with that settlement agreement whereas what we saw during the Trump years was abject ignoring of the settlement agreement itself. Our country should be treating children with basic humanity, and dignity and respect when they're coming into the United States. I expect that the Biden administration will adhere to those basic minimum standards.
Kai: What about COVID? How do you think COVID has impacted all of this? This has come up when we talk about detention in general, but how do you think it's impacted asylum seekers and refugees?
Elora: The impact of COVID has been that asylum seekers have basically been blocked from entering the United States at the southern border. There are inside immigration detention facilities, very dangerous conditions for immigrants detained there. In the words of one federal judge, "Detention centers holding parents and children are on fire with COVID," is what she ruled over the summer. What this means for asylum seekers and refugees is that there needs to be put into place systems for allowing asylum seekers and refugees into the country that take public health concerns into account.
There are ways to do this. We can imagine a system that would require asylum seekers and refugees to be tested for COVID before entering the United States, to quarantine for 14 days to make sure that they don't show any symptoms during that period and then to be let into the United States. There are ways for the United States to meet its obligations under domestic law and international law while safely processing asylum seekers and refugees into our country.
Kai: Dara, Elora mentioned earlier the remain in Mexico policy that the Trump administration had, remind us what this is and is it now completely gone under Biden?
Dara: The remain in Mexico policy took people who were coming to the US to seek asylum and said, "We are not telling you no, but you're going to have to wait in Mexico until we allow you to come into the US for your court hearing and then after you have your court hearings, if your case isn't resolved, we'll send you back." That's resulted in some 20,000 people being in Mexico while extensively having legal proceedings in the US. That was put on pause for COVID and the people who already had court hearings scheduled have now had those deferred indefinitely.
The Biden administration last night said that, as of today, they are going to stop putting any new people into that program, but as Elora was saying, because the current policy is that you just get pushed back if you come into the US anyway. It wasn't exactly the main way that asylum seekers were getting treated anyway. We can expect that this isn't going to resume after the current COVID policy of expulsion ends, given what happened last night. At the same time, it's not at all clear what the timeline is for the people who theoretically are already in the program and have court hearings.
Furthermore, the Biden administration said last night, when it announced that it was going to stop new enrollments in the program, it went out of its way to point out that even under President Biden's immigration bill, people who aren't physically present in the United States right now wouldn't be eligible for legalization. It did explicitly tell these people who are waiting in Mexico that because they were put into the remain in Mexico program under the Trump administration, the Biden administration will not put them on the path to citizenship.
Kai: It remains an issue. Elora, we have just a couple of minutes left, but one of the big parts of this bill was that there's going to be resources for addressing sources of migration in the first place. What would you tick through a couple of the top things you would like to see happen in that regard?
Elora: As most of your listeners know, the northern triangle countries, Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador are plagued by immense and horrific gang violence that leads many, many people to flee from those nations. Those nations are also affected by climate change which has led to the inability of many people to engage in sustainable farming and have sufficient food to have a livelihood for themselves and their families. What a regional system for managing migration would include is real direct supports to the governments of those countries to build safe and secure systems where people can live fulfilling, thriving lives and they don't feel the need to migrate.
That would include supports for non governmental organizations, that would include support for education, health care and the supports needed in the home countries so people don't feel in danger if their lives and the need to flee.
Kai: We'll have to leave it there. Elora Mukherjee is a professor and director of the immigrants rights clinic at Columbia Law. Dara Lind is a reporter covering immigration policy for ProPublica. Thanks to you both for being here with us.
Elora: Thank you.
Dara: Thank you.
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