President-elect Biden promises immigration overhaul, but some Pa. activists are wary

Anel Medina (center), a registered nurse who graduated from Delaware County Community College, joins a rally in support of DACA. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

Anel Medina (center), a registered nurse who graduated from Delaware County Community College, joins a rally in support of DACA. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

President-elect Joe Biden has pledged to make permanent a program that protects some undocumented immigrants who were brought to the country illegally as children.

While many immigrant rights organizations celebrated the electoral defeat of President Donald Trump this month, many in Pennsylvania plan on keeping the pressure on the Biden Administration on the issue.

“So we need to make sure that we’re holding him accountable from day one,” said Maegan Llerena, executive director of Latino-advocacy group Make The Road Pennsylvania. “Because it’s not like talking to Trump — that’s a brick wall. It’s actually talking to somebody that actually cares about these issues, and just needs to be pushed a little more, to make the right choices.”

Biden has pledged to fully reinstate the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, on his first day in office. The commitment is somewhat a relief for organizations like Llerena’s. But, she said the last four years under Trump and Biden’s previous tenure in the White House as President Barack Obama’s vice president makes her and fellow organizers wary.

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“We’ve already said that we’re not accepting the bare minimum anymore, and that we’re gonna hold people accountable to more,” Llerena said. “This is, right now,  the bare minimum, because it’s something that Trump’s had to take away from us in 2017.”

Trump’s immigration policies have galvanized civic organizations around the state and country over the past four years. Those policies have also faced a flurry of legal opposition, and some policies have been outright trounced by the courts.

Earlier this month, a federal judge found that acting DHS Secretary Chad Wolf was unlawfully appointed to his position. The ruling also nullified actions by Wolf in July, which essentially froze DACA for DHS review.

The Department of Homeland Security began to phase out DACA in 2017, but in June, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled the Trump administration had not adequately justified ending DACA.

Biden selected Alejandro Mayorkas this week as his nominee to head the Department of Homeland Security. Mayorkas, who was born in Cuba, would be the first Latino to be at the helm of the agency that implements much of the nation’s immigration policies.

Mayorkas is also considered the architect of the DACA program when he served under former President Obama. He was the director of the US Citizenship and Immigration Services and also worked as DHS deputy secretary.

The president-elect also said he will also look into legal avenues for protecting the families of DACA recipients and he aims to “modernize” the nation’s immigration system.

Biden’s record on immigration is a mixed bag for some advocates.

His former boss, President Obama was once labeled as deporter-in-chief by the head of the nation’s largest Latino organization, UnidosUS. But, the group’s President Janet Muriaga supported Biden’s campaign.

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The Obama administration also faced frequent protests and calls to end detaining asylum-seeking families like those being held in the Berks County Residential Center and two other facilities in Texas.

A 12 hour protest was held in front of the Berks County Residential Center July 17, calling for the release of immigrant families detained inside. (Anthony Orozco/WITF)

Biden’s immigration plans hint, but do not plainly state, that he intends to end family detention — another long-time rallying point for Make The Road Pennsylvania.

Stephanie Nuñez, a Harrisburg coordinator with Movement of Immigrant Leaders in Pennsylvania, also said she is not getting her hopes too high.

“I think we have seen and learned from many of the mistakes that happened when Obama was in (office), where we believed a lot of promises and they never came into reality,” said Nuñez, who is a DACA recipient. “I think some of the concerns that do arise with reinstalling DACA is more of like ‘what’s going to change?’”

Stephanie Nuñez speaks at the riverfront in Harrisburg. (Anthony Orozco/WITF)

Nuñez said she understands there will be barriers to making large scale immigration reform and that the president can only do so much unilaterally, without the approval of Congress.

Even though the Obama administration faced strong criticism from activist groups, Nuñez said she cannot judge Biden completely on the past.

Since she does outreach and support for DACA recipients, DACA hopefuls and other undocumented immigrants, Nuñez said it is important for those vulnerable populations to stay hopeful, but to not let their guard down — even if only as a matter of living in the country without permanent status.

“I feel like we all have to be kind of optimistic, and hope for the best, but be prepared for the worst,” Nuñez said.

Anthony Orozco is a fellow with Report for America, a national service program that places talented emerging journalists in local newsrooms to report on under-covered topics and communities.

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