Immigration Reform Agenda Under Biden Will Face Challenges

Excerpt of speech by Kica Matos, vice president of Initiatives at the Vera Institute of Justice, recorded and produced by Melinda Tuhus

When Joe Biden takes office Jan. 20 as the 46th president of the United States, he will immediately face an avalanche of demands from groups whose priorities have been ignored or aggressively thwarted by the Trump regime.

Those issues include immigrant rights, the climate crisis, racial justice, universal health care and more. Like other groups, national immigration rights organizations have developed both short- and longer-term reform proposals and new initiatives for the executive and legislative branches to take up.

Between The Lines’ Melinda Tuhus attended a virtual presentation by Kica Matos, vice president of Initiatives at the Vera Institute of Justice, which is one of the groups advocating for immigration reform. Here she explains some of the proposals and cautions that even though President-elect Biden has supported several of these goals, and both houses of Congress nominally are controlled by Democrats, it will still be a very uphill fight to win a path to citizenship for the 11 million undocumented immigrants living in the U.S.

KICA MATOS: Let me quickly distill some of the key frecommendations both for the first 100 days and then for the longer term. So, among the most common 100-day recommendations are to reverse or rescind every single Trump-era anti-immigrant and anti-refugee policy effectuated; to overhaul the immigration enforcement system; to issue a moratorium on deportations and enforcement; to expand DACA and to restore Temporary Protected Status to the countries where it was repealed; and finally, in the context of Covid, 100-day recommendations include providing economic relief and recovery for immigrants. We know that they were left out for the most part, and they have still been left out under this latest wave of relief. In terms of the Biden bill, advocates have been very clear about what demands should be in this bill. The biggest demand is legalization that puts 11 million on a path to citizenship; no trade-offs and no enforcement. If I were to distill what people most want in the Biden bill, it is these three things.

Longer-term goals that advocates are pushing for include establishing a federal defender system that provides free legal representation for any immigrant facing deportation; the creation of a deportation protection program for millions; dismantling the enforcement machinery; and significantly reducing the funding to ICE and to Customs and Border Protection, because their budgets are disgustingly over-bloated.

People in the longer term also want to remove the backlog of removal cases that are currently before immigration courts, and they’re really pushing for administration closure or dismissal. People want to end the 287G program – any state and local entanglements, affiliations between criminal and immigration enforcement systems. And finally, people are really, really pushing to drastically shrink the immigration detention system. Several organizations like Vera are actually pushing for the closure of immigration detention centers all over the U.S. Our belief is that we have no business incarcerating people who want to live in the U.S.

Some left-of-center demands also include allowing those who have been deported to return to the U.S.

I’ve laid out what the Biden administration has left us; I’ve laid out the goals and the strategies of the national advocates. Now I feel I have a duty to provide you with some analysis. What is actually likely to move forward? Here’s the current state of play. We have a Democratic White House. The Senate is now in the hands of Democrats. The House remains on Democratic control, although we have a significantly smaller majority than we did in 2018. And the Biden administration has nominated Alejandro Mayorcas to be the DHS Secretary. He is, thankfully, a friend and ally of the immigrant community and he has experience already working at the federal level.

Despite this — I’ve laid out a sliver of promise – but despite the landscape, the consensus is that efforts to pass significant immigration legislation are going to be really difficult and really challenging. Nevertheless, there will be legislative movement really quickly on a number of fronts, so what we should expect in the coming weeks are a bunch of bills and resolutions that will be introduced and I’ll cite just a few. Congresswoman Jayapal is likely to introduce a Roadmap to Freedom resolution that will encapsulate most of the proposals I just described from national advocates. There are also likely to be a number of immigration proposals from the Congressional Hispanic Caucus and other members of Congress. Pelosi committed to passing Dream Act legislation.

The initial legislative play is likely to build on what was already passed in the 116th Congress, to win a path to legalization for DACA youth, Temporary Protected Status-holders, and farmworkers. I lift two in particular: HR6, which is the Dream and Promise Act, and HR 5038 (1538), which is the Farmworkers Modernization Act. Together, these bills would provide a path for approximately 3.5 million people. Each of these bills passed in the 116th Congress with bipartisan votes and have the potential to move quickly through the House and to get packaged for Senate consideration.

For more information, visit Vera Institute of Justice at


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