A New Vision for Immigration

Once in office, Joe Biden must immediately work toward a system where immigrants aren’t treated as criminals.

The election of Joe Biden as the next President of the United States has come as a great relief to  Natzieli Alvarez—and nearly 650,000 other undocumented immigrants, who are protected from deportation by the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program.

As a nine-year-old in 1995, Alvaraz crossed the border with her mother and sister to escape poverty and domestic violence in Mexico. She lived an underground existence until the establishment of DACA in 2012. But for the past three years, President Donald Trump has tried to dismantle this program.

“The only thing I had to get me through was hope; hope that we would get him out. Just the hate he spewed. It was just too much,” says Alvarez, who now lives in Medfield, North Carolina, and is active in the immigrant rights group, Siembra NC.

DACA is one of the protections Biden has pledged to restore. He can do this without Congressional approval. And that’s also true for more than 400 other executive actions that Trump has unilaterally implemented in an unprecedented assault on immigration. 

A more challenging task would be Biden’s desire to create “a roadmap to citizenship for the nearly eleven million people who have been living in and strengthening our country for years.”

In the meantime, simply returning immigration to the pre-Trump days won’t suffice. Alvarez, like many activists, wants to be treated the same as everyone else. “We are here to remind people that you can plant roots here because you live here,” she says.

Biden should instruct Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), as well as Customs and Border Protection, to stop treating asylum seekers as criminals. And when immigrants do run afoul of the law, that shouldn’t be a pretext for deportation.

“So many individuals who have a single offense from many years ago have gone through the criminal justice system, paid their debt to society, and suddenly find themselves subject to deportation,” says Alina Das, co-director of New York University School of Law’s Immigrant Rights Clinic.

Ravi Ragbir, fifty-six, for example, is now fighting deportation to Trinidad and Tobago, arguing that the Trump Administration has singled him out because of his activism as executive director of the New York City-based New Sanctuary Coalition. Das, who is representing Ragbir, notes that a 2001 fraud conviction was the basis for revoking his permanent residency.

Previous administrations recognized Ragbir’s contributions, and did not go ahead with deportation. 

But the Trump Administration detained him for deportation in January 2018. Although Ragbir’s case is still being fought out in the courts, the Second Circuit Court of Appeals recognized that he has provided “plausible—indeed, strong—evidence that officials responsible for the decision to deport did so based on their disfavor of Ragbir’s speech.”

The attempt to deport Ragbir is one of 1,010 retaliatory actions by immigration enforcement in recent years now documented on an interactive website established by the NYU Immigrant Rights Clinic and the New Sanctuary Coalition.

“It seems that the United States in some circumstances understands the importance of the First Amendment,” says Angelo Guisado, a lawyer with the Center for Constitutional Rights. “But whenever confronted with a situation where it doesn’t like the type of speech or the speaker, it willfully ignores that obligation.”

Guisado was one of the lawyers who represented three undocumented workers and the immigrants rights group Migrant Justice in a lawsuit recently settled with the federal government. The three are active in Migrant Justice, which organizes dairy farmworkers in Vermont. They claimed they were singled out for arrest and deportation because of their political activism. An informant was even used to spy on the group.

The lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court in Burlington, alleged First Amendment and other constitutional violations by ICE. In the settlement, the government agreed to pay plaintiffs a total of $100,000 and not proceed with their deportation. ICE, while not admitting wrongdoing, agreed to remind its agents in the Vermont field office that the First Amendment must be respected.


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James Goodman