Experts: Immigration changes might take backseat to COVID-19 relief even if Democrats win

Border Report

A Biden White House, however, likely to try to end family separations, 'Remain in Mexico' program and other controversial Trump policies

Protesters across from the Gateway International Bridge in Brownsville, Texas, have picketed every day since Jan. 12, 2020, the Trump Administration’s Migrant Protection Protocols program (MPP) which forces migrants to wait in Mexico during their asylum hearings. (Border Report Photo/Sandra Sanchez)

Editor’s note: Story has been updated to include expert from Migration Policy Institute in Washington, D.C.

EL PASO, Texas (Border Report) – One of Joe Biden’s campaign promises is to unveil a formal immigration reform proposal in the first 100 days of his administration.

But with the COVID-19 crisis ravaging the country, a vaccine still months away and millions of American workers and businesses in need of relief, immigration reform might have to wait. And that’s even if the Democrats take control of the White House, Senate and House of Representatives after Election Day, some experts say.

“If this, in fact, is a blue wave, I honestly think the biggest challenge is getting past the pandemic. I think that’s actually going to derail a lot of potential plans to address a myriad of problems,” said Richard Pineda, director of the Sam Donaldson Center for Communication Studies at the University of Texas at El Paso.

Crafting a proactive response to the pandemic – from approving a new stimulus package to helping states shore up contact tracing – and finding ways to keep small businesses from going broke could take up a lot of a new administration’s initial months in office, Pineda and other experts said.

“If Biden wins, I think there will be a very strong incentive to address legislative issues, among them here in Texas is immigration,” Pineda said. “But it will be very difficult for the first two years to get past the pandemic because it has been so mishandled it has created challenges in every aspect of the economy.”

That’s not to say there won’t be quick changes to American immigration policy under the Democratic majority scenario. Family separations at the border, express deportations and even the “Remain in Mexico” (Migrant Protection Protocols, or MPP) program might come to a halt, according to observers.

Migrants who are part of the Remain in Mexico policy wait at the entrance to the Paso del Norte International Bridge on February 28, 2020, in Ciudad Juárez. (Photo by PAUL RATJE/AFP via Getty Images)

“I would hope that if Biden wins, we would see the elimination of the MPP program,” said Melissa Lopez, executive director of El Paso’s Diocesan Migrant and Refugee Services. “It has caused irreparable harm to so many people that have been subjected to violence and torture and terrible things because the U.S. has not been following its own laws and international treaties.”

Charles Boehmer, a political science professor at UTEP, said a full immigration reform that includes legalization for unauthorized migrants already in the country might still meet vigorous opposition by a Republican minority. That’s a bad thing when you’re trying to craft a unified response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

But less confrontational initiatives such as the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) will have a shot. DACA is an Obama-era executive order that suspended he deportation of migrants brought into the country before age 16 and gave them two-year renewable work permits. Trump moved to do away with the program, but the Supreme Court blocked him.

“DACA isn’t that controversial. I don’t think it’ll be hard for the Democrats to handle that issue,” Boehmer said. “A decent number of Republicans are more moderate on immigration but under Trump they had a hard time revealing that – because of his stance on running opponents on them in GOP primaries. Those moderates would probably be in favor of at least DACA.”

Sarah Pierce, an analyst with the Washington, D.C.-based Migration Policy Institute, said a Biden administration likely would want to have processes and resources in place before implementing changes in immigration policy.

“We’ve seen the southern border is subject to who is in office and what their rhetoric is. We know that the resources at the southern border are not ready for a sudden surge (in immigration). We know the Biden administration might want to slow-walk changes,” Pierce said.

Department of Homeland Security officials last week warned that doing away with MPP and other policies that helped curve last year’s migrant surge would lead to yet another sizeable wave of illegal migration.

Pierce said an increase in migration flows is possible, not just because of migrants’ perception about more favorable conditions for them at the U.S. border, but also because the U.S. economy — battered as it is — is faring better than those in Latin America, from where many migrants come from.

“The U.S. economy is more open, and that’s going to be a huge pull for a lot of people. I would expect an uptick,” she said.

Pierce added that Biden might, indeed, come up with an immigration reform proposal within the announced time frame, but passage wouldn’t be guaranteed even if the Democrats control both houses of Congress.

“You figure that control of both the Senate and the House would facilitate the movement of an immigration bill, but at the same time there’s going to be a lot of other priorities. There’s an unprecedented public health and economic crisis, there’s a national reckoning on racial justice. There’s a lot that’s going to be on the agenda and immigration is such a sticky issue an one the Democrats have been unwilling to take before,” she said.

Still, many other immigration bills already introduced by the House might finally get a floor vote and some already approved by the House could get a shot at passage in the Senate, observer say.

Among them:

The Coronavirus Containment Act of 2020, which requires Immigration and Customs Enforcement that foreign nationals test negative to COVID-19 before removal.

The Healthcare Workforce Resiliency Act, which designates 40,000 unused immigrant visas for foreign doctors and nurses.

The American Dream and Promise Act, a new version of the DREAM Act that allows “Dreamers,” Temporary Protected Status recipients and Deferred Enforced Departure designees to apply for permanent legal status.

The Asylum Seeker Protection Act, filed by U.S. Rep. Veronica Escobar, D-Texas, which aims to defund the Migrant Protection Protocols program.

The National Origin-Based Antidiscrimination for Nonimmigrant Act, or NO BAN Act, which repeals travel bans against immigrants based on their religion.

The Access to Counsel Act of 2020, which guarantees access to legal counsel for foreigners who arrive at ports of entry and are subjected to secondary or deferred inspection by U.S. Customs and Border Protection.

The Immigration Enforcement Moratorium Act, also introduced by Escobar, which freezes many immigration enforcement activities during the pandemic.

Pineda said a potential Biden administration might face yet another challenge: time.

“The day after the President is sworn in, he’ll only have effectively a year to deal with the issues before the campaign starts again for House congressional seats and Democrats are going to have to be strategic so as to not lose their advantage,” he said.

Visit the BorderReport.com homepage for the latest exclusive stories and breaking news about issues along the United States-Mexico border.

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