Immigrants, activists worry Biden won’t end Trump barriers

HOUSTON (AP) — For nearly 17 months, the Trump administration tried to deport the mother and daughter from El Salvador. The Biden administration may finish the job.

They are being held at a family detention centre in remote Dilley, Texas, but have repeatedly been on the verge of deportation. The Friday before Christmas, both were driven to the San Antonio airport and put on a plane, only to be pulled off when lawyers working for immigrant advocacy groups filed new appeals.

“I have faith first in God and in the new president who has taken office, that he’ll give us a chance,” said the mother, who goes by the nickname Barbi. Her daughter was eight when they crossed the United States (US) border in August 2019 and will turn 10 in a few weeks. “It’s not been easy.”

It’s unlikely to get easier anytime soon. US President Joe Biden rushed to send the most ambitious overhaul of the nation’s immigration system in a generation to Congress and signed nine executive actions to wipe out some of his predecessor’s toughest measures to fortify the US-Mexico border.

But a federal court in Texas suspended Biden’s 100-day moratorium on deportations, and the immigration bill is likely to be scaled back as lawmakers grapple with major coronavirus pandemic relief legislation as well a second impeachment trial for former US President Donald Trump.

Honduran migrants sit on the side of a highway after clashing with Guatemalan police and soldiers in Vado Hondo. PHOTOS: AP
US President Joe Biden signs an executive order on immigration, in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington

Even if Biden gets most of what he wants on immigration, fully implementing the kind of sweeping changes he’s promised will take weeks, months — perhaps even years.

That means, at least for now, there is likely to be more overlap between the Biden and Trump immigration policies than many of the activists who backed the Democrat’s successful presidential campaign had hoped.

“It’s important that we pass policies that are not only transformative, inclusive and permanent but also that they are policies that do not increase the growth of deportation,” said Living United for Change in Arizona Programme Director for membership services and engagement Genesis Renteria, which helped mobilise Democratic voters in the critical battleground state. “Our organisations will continue to hold the administration accountable.”

Federal law allows immigrants facing credible threats of persecution or violence in their home country to seek US asylum.

Biden has ordered a review of Trump policies that sent people from Central America, Cuba and other countries to Mexico while their cases were processed — often forcing them into makeshift tent camps mere steps from American soil.

He also has formed a task force to reunite immigrant children separated from their parents and halted federal funding to expand walls along the US-Mexico border. On Saturday, the Biden administration said it was withdrawing from agreements with El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras that restricted the ability of people to seek US asylum.

But those orders likely won’t help Barbi and her daughter. They sought asylum but were denied because of a Trump administration rule barring such protections for people who crossed another country to reach the US border — in their case Guatemala and Mexico.

That measure was struck down by a federal appeals court, shielding them from deportation so far.

Still, Barbi and her daughter, like others who have been held for months at Dilley, could be removed from the county at any time, perhaps even in the coming days. Elsewhere in the facility run by Immigration and Customs Enforcement, a dozen Hondurans were told to pack this past week, but not actually deported — yet.

“It’s very traumatic,” said Barbi, who left behind two other children in El Salvador and asked that her real name not be revealed so as not to draw the attention of criminal gangs there. “My daughter cried and said, ‘Why won’t they let us out?'”

As a candidate last summer, Biden suggested he’d do just that, declaring, “Children should be released from ICE detention with their parents immediately”.

Advocates who originally commended Biden for championing immigration reform now worry that not enough will be done. Director of the American Civil Liberties Union’s Immigrants’ Rights Project Omar Jadwat called it “troubling” that Biden’s efforts “did not include immediate action to rescind and unwind more of the unlawful and inhumane policies that this administration inherited — and now owns”.

“We are tired, as Latinos and immigrants, that there is always another priority,” said Mi Familia Vota’s Executive Director and CEO Héctor Sánchez Barba, which led voting drives in Hispanic communities ahead of the November election. “Immigration should remain the top priority, especially given how our community was devastated, attacked, separated.”

Interim Executive Director Antonio Arellano of Jolt Action, which seeks to build the power and influence of young Latinos in Texas, said political pressure is already mounting as conservative forces mobilise to retake the House and Senate for Republicans in 2022. “There will be electoral consequences if we fail to deliver,” Arellano said.

Biden administration officials have pleaded for more time, saying that Trump’s policies are too wide-reaching to be rescinded overnight. But simply returning to pre-Trump practices — if Biden is able to actually achieve that — won’t be enough for many activists.

Former US president Barack Obama was called the “Deporter-in-Chief” for removing a record number of immigrants during his eight years in office. His administration also built the detention centre where Barbi is being held, as well as a similar facility in equally rural Karnes City, Texas, 95 miles to the east.

Biden has banned private prisons, but his order doesn’t apply to lock-ups like those in Dilley and Karnes City. Far from advocating their closure previously, Biden as vice president flew to Guatemala during a 2014 surge of unaccompanied minors heading to the US border and personally warned that his country would increase detention of families — which the Obama administration subsequently did.