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Biden faces battle to reform US migration policies

16 January 20210 comments

Incoming US President Joe Biden may struggle to undo much of the havoc wrought by the Trump administration to the US immigration and refugee protection systems, observers say.

Refugee advocates in the US have called on incoming US President Joe Biden to undo dozens of Trump administration policies attacking the asylum process of the United States.

These include the so-called nicknamed “death to asylum” rule that was schedule to go into effect this month but was blocked by a federal judge.

The rule would make it almost impossible to qualify for asylum, introducing new eligibility bars and further restricting an already difficult to satisfy and narrow refugee definition.

President Biden has promised to restore pre-Trump policies instigated when he was vice president in the Obama administration.

But advocates and lawyers working with asylum seekers say Trump’s policies – and their impacts -may not be so simple to reverse.

Since President Trump took office in January 2017, the administration has enacted more than 40 executive actions on immigration. The most infamous of these policies include the ‘travel ban,’ better known as the Muslim ban, which put immigration restrictions on people from Muslim countries.

Another was the Migrant Protection Protocols (MPP), or the “Remain in Mexico” policy, which forces asylum seekers to wait in Mexico until their court dates.

Yet another was the termination of DACA, or Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, which froze the pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants “Dreamers” who came to the US as children.

Advocates, who have been fighting against the government’s policies for four years, doubt whether Biden and the US will ever be able to fully eliminate the impact of the Trump-era immigration policies.

Ann O’Brien, Director of community engagement at Integrated Refugee and Immigrant Services (IRIS), says there are some changes that the Biden administration may not be able to undo.

“The Biden administration definitely won’t be able to undo the ramifications of what’s happened,” Ms O’Brien told International Policy Digest.

“I don’t think that the undocumented population and asylum seekers will ever trust the US government like they did before these past four years. I don’t know that that can ever be repaired, that sense of trust in the US as a beacon of hope and safety,” she said.

Some advocates say that even before the Trump administration, the US asylum system already failed to protect too many vulnerable individuals escaping life-threatening violence and seeking the protection.

Sociologist Dr Chiara Galli says that if President Biden wants to “save the soul of our nation” as he claimed during his campaign, to restore the best version of US national identity as a historic place of refuge for those fleeing persecution, he must do more than scrap Trump era policies.

The Cornell University researcher says there are four key problems for access to asylum that predate Trump.

“First, the Biden administration must resolve the backlog of over one million cases pending in our immigration courts, where most individuals currently apply for asylum. This mess originated when the Bush administration ramped up interior enforcement and it skyrocketed under the Obama administration and Trump administration,” Dr Galli said.

“Second, Biden must end the practice of systematically detaining asylum seekers, including mothers with children, which became widespread under Obama. Detaining asylum seekers without just cause is prohibited under international law. It is also dangerous because it allows the coronavirus to spread like wildfire,” she said.

“The solution is simple: we release asylum seekers while they await their hearings. Over 85 percent of immigrants show up to their immigration proceedings. The number rises to 99 percent when they have legal representation.

“Third, as other countries of asylum already do, the federal government must provide universal legal representation at no cost to all asylum seekers. This will not only ensure they show up to their interviews but also that they have a real shot at claiming protection in our complex asylum process, where it is virtually impossible to succeed without an attorney.

“Finally, the Trump administration negated years of progress by attacking established case law on gendered persecution that allowed victims of domestic violence to qualify for asylum. We must not only scrap these draconian changes but also more broadly change course to remedy our longstanding failure to protect other vulnerable groups of individuals escaping violence,” Dr Galli said.

And whether Biden’s promised changes happen through comprehensive immigration reform or more targeted legislation remains to be seen, other observers say.

Leon Sequeira, former assistant secretary of Labour in Bush administration, says that, realistically, the US Congress will have its hands full in the first 100 days of the Biden administration.

Between confirming Cabinet appointments, considering another $1 trillion in coronavirus relief and now a trial in the Senate after Trump was impeached in the House for a second time, there is a lot on lawmakers’ plates, he said.

While Biden’s vision for immigration reform will certainly include a path to citizenship and DACA, the question remains whether the slim Democratic majorities in the House and Senate could be barriers to reform.