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Biden poised to be the most pro-immigrant president since Reagan

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“We lead the world because, unique among nations, we draw our people — our strength — from every country and every corner of the world…If we ever closed the door to new Americans, our leadership in the world would soon be lost.”

These words from President Reagan’s final speech stand in sharp contrast with the last four years of President Trump’s war on immigration and his continued demonization of immigrants in one of his final appearances at the border last week. Instead, we have seen a Republican president who seized every opportunity available to barricade our nation’s doors to those seeking protection and a better life.

On the other side of the aisle, yet in far more Reagen-esque fashion, President-elect Joe Biden is expected to send groundbreaking legislation to Congress within his first days of assuming office in pursuit of the long-sought after goal of immigration reform, including a pathway to citizenship for approximately 11 million immigrants who are in the country without legal status.

In an interview with Univision, Vice President-elect Kamala Harris, the daughter of two immigrants herself, teased the bill’s other major provisions, including automatic green cards for immigrants with Temporary Protected Status (TPS) and Dreamers holding Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) status, a decrease in wait times for U.S. citizenship from 13 to eight years and an increase in the number of immigration judges to relieve a backlog of approximately 1.3 million cases.

Not since Reagan has the nation seen such a humane, pragmatic approach to immigration. Reagan’s Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986 granted legal status to nearly 3 million people who were in the country without documentation. While the bill did not directly address the status of children of undocumented migrants who were eligible for this amnesty program, Reagan used his executive authority shortly after to legalize their status, protecting an estimated 100,000 families from being torn apart by deportation. In the same year, Reagan also signed the Emergency Medical Treatment and Active Labor Act, which prohibits hospitals from denying emergency care services based on immigration status. 

As the country approaches the one-year mark of an uncontrolled pandemic, there are certainly lessons to be drawn from the past — and it seems Biden has learned them well. His incoming administration is purportedly considering measures to ensure equitable distribution of vaccines regardless of immigration status and include undocumented taxpayers in economic stimulus relief. This move would recognize the outsized role undocumented immigrants have played in helping America weather the pandemic  — 74 percent of them work in essential functions.  

Biden has also expressed his explicit commitment to welcoming more refugees and restoring the United States’ reputation as the world’s humanitarian leader — much like Reagan, who resettled over 200,000 refugees his first year in office, and over his two terms, more than any other president in American history. After four years of sustained attacks by Trump that have cut admissions to a record-low 11,800 this year and decimated the resettlement infrastructure, it will be a tremendous challenge to reach Biden’s goal of welcoming 125,000 refugees this year. However, it is one Biden is willing to tackle, having reaffirmed his commitment to reaching this ambitious figure post-election.

Biden is also expected to use executive authority to reverse the most harmful of his predecessor’s 400-plus changes to immigration policy. A memo from Biden’s incoming Chief of Staff Ronald Klain indicates the new administration will overturn Trump’s Muslim Ban on Inauguration Day and, within the first week, begin reuniting families that have been separated at the border. Those familiar with Biden’s immigration agenda also expect the rescinding of the Public Charge rule — essentially a wealth test used to deny green cards to immigrants who have used public benefits.

Beyond these pressing priorities, there remains much more work to be done. Restoring asylum protections, ending private for-profit immigration detention, reforming U.S. Immigration and Customs Reform (ICE) and the U.S. Customs and Border Patrol (CPB), and acting on climate displacement will all be critical to implementing a humane immigration system that addresses the challenges of the 21st century. But by all indications, Biden has demonstrated his shared view of what Reagan so admired about immigrants: 

“They believe in the American dream. And over and over, they make it come true for themselves, for their children, and for others. They give more than they receive. They labor and succeed. And often they are entrepreneurs. But their greatest contribution is more than economic, because they understand in a special way how glorious it is to be an American.” 

Krish O’Mara Vignarajah is the president and CEO of Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service, a former senior adviser in the State Department, and former Policy Director for First Lady Michelle Obama.

Tags Biden immigration policy CBP COVID-19 vaccines DACA Donald Trump ICE Immigration immigration status Joe Biden legal status Michelle Obama Muslim ban public charge rule Ronald Reagan TPS Trump immigration policy

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