Disappointed, said veteran Philadelphia activist Jasmine Rivera, is one way to characterize her view of President Joe Biden’s performance on immigration.

But here’s a more accurate description: furious.

The number of beds to jail undocumented immigrants has soared in Pennsylvania. A Trump-era health rule that’s used to expel immigrants at the border has been expanded. The program that protects those who were brought into the country as children is in peril, and federal authorities continue to arrest and deport people whose only “crime” was crossing a boundary to try providing for their families.

“This isn’t theoretical for us,” said Rivera, a leader in the Shut Down Berks Coalition, which works to close detention facilities. “These are people we know, we love, who are in our community.”

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It’s not what she and other advocates hoped for from a Democratic president who, as a candidate, pledged to treat immigration as essential to the nation, its values, and its aspirations for the future.

Now, as the midterm elections near, people who devote their lives to helping immigrants and changing the immigration system say no president, candidate, or party should count on their allegiance.

“Biden seemed to signal that this time around, things would be different,” said Andy Kang, executive director of the Pennsylvania Immigration and Citizenship Coalition in Philadelphia. “By and large, the apparatus and how immigration was handled has remained the same.”

Former President Donald Trump’s staunch anti-immigration stance became a pillar of a winning movement. For Democrats, criticized as soft on border security, that can make political calculations around immigration seem treacherous.

“It’s not a winning issue for Democrats,” said Philadelphia-based political consultant Neil Oxman. “If the Democrats have any sense of winning the White House in 2024, or winning the House back, they need to figure it out.”

Polls show Americans broadly support the ideal of immigration — but only 27% actually want to see more immigrants come to the United States, down seven points in two years, according to Gallup. Meanwhile, 69% say admissions to this country should be cut or stay the same.

That’s at a time when immigration offers solutions for employers desperate to fill millions of jobs, and governments struggle to recoup pandemic losses in business and population.

“It’s really disheartening that with the political capital this administration had, the hopes around people who do immigrant-justice work, there hasn’t been more action,” said Nancy Nguyen, who fights the ongoing deportation of Southeast Asians as co-director of Vietlead in Philadelphia.

The White House says whatever the criticism, it has made significant progress on securing the border and building a fair, orderly, and humane system.

It gathered world leaders to discuss how to manage migration across the western hemisphere, implemented new regulations to cut processing times for asylum applications, arrested more than 5,000 human smugglers, and reunited 500 families separated under Trump.

Those changes came “even as congressional Republicans refuse to support badly needed legislation and as their counterparts in the states attempt to block nearly every administrative step we take,” a White House spokesperson said.

In four years Trump made more than 400 changes to the immigration system, spread across the entirety of the federal government. Many of the changes in forms, regulations, and fees appeared technical but in combination significantly impacted how immigration operates.

“There were a lot of promises on the campaign trail,” said Amy Torres, executive director of the New Jersey Alliance for Immigrant Justice. “Thanks to the deep organizing of people of color and immigrant communities, we delivered that win, and they have not delivered to us.”

Today nearly one of every four New Jersey residents is an immigrant. Half are people of color. Between 2016 and 2020, about 177,890 residents became naturalized citizens — and thus empowered to vote. In Pennsylvania the 85,083 people who were naturalized exceed Biden’s winning 80,555-vote margin in the presidential election.

He initially took a fresh direction, announcing plans for a path to citizenship for 11 million undocumented immigrants in the United States, including about 50,000 in Philadelphia. The plan went nowhere, despite the Democrats holding slim majorities in Congress.

“Our leaders and families and members fought really hard, talking to leaders in Congress,” said Desi Burnette, a statewide coordinator with MILPA, the Movement of Immigrant Leaders in Pennsylvania. “What we ended up getting instead of pathways to citizenship were two new detention centers.”

A repurposed Berks County facility, which had emptied of immigrant families before reopening as a women’s center, and a 1,876-bed private prison, the Moshannon Valley Processing Center in Clearfield County, dramatically increased detention space.

This month Biden expanded the Trump-era health rule known as Title 42 — even as it fights it in court — to expel and send to Mexico thousands of Venezuelans crossing the southern border.

Other actions make less news but still hurt immigrants, activists said.

The president issued a formal pardon to all citizens and lawful permanent residents convicted of simple possession of marijuana. But he specifically excluded immigrants who were in the country without permission at the time of their offense, leaving them open to deportation or being barred from obtaining legal status.

Armando Jimenez-Carbarin, 36, lives and works in the United States under DACA, which protects about 600,000 people who were brought to this country as children.

Because President Obama created Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals by executive action, not legislation, its future has been flung into the courts, and recent rulings put the program in jeopardy.

People like Jimenez-Carbarin, who was 2 when he came here with his parents and siblings, have counted on Biden to find a permanent solution. Without DACA they would have no legal status and could face deportation.

“He can do much, much more,” said Jimenez-Carbarin, a lead organizer for Make the Road Pennsylvania. “He has a lot of power.”

Rivera and her colleagues want elected officials to be allies but after nearly two years, they say, they can’t count on the Biden administration for big strides.

“This is part of why we see so many people become apathetic to elections,” she said. “Look at our choices, it’s ‘bad’ or ‘worse.’ People are not apathetic because they’re uniformed. They’re apathetic because they pay attention, and they see that nothing is changing.”


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