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Immigration reform a tough task for Biden

By Lan Shunzheng | China Daily | Updated: 2021-02-27 08:41
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US President Joe Biden signs executive orders on immigration reform inside the Oval Office at the White House in Washington, US, Feb 2, 2021. [Photo/Agencies]

US President Joe Biden's efforts to reverse his predecessor Donald Trump's hard-line, regressive policies, including his attempt to reform the US immigration system, encountered bumps in the very first week of his presidency.

On Jan 26, a federal judge in Texas temporarily blocked Biden's 100-day deportation moratorium. However, days later Biden unveiled hefty immigration reforms-formally named the US Citizenship Act of 2021-which would include providing an eight-year path to citizenship for more than 11 million undocumented immigrants if it becomes law.

The act will also preserve and strengthen the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program introduced by former president Barack Obama in 2012 to allow individuals with unlawful presence in the US after being brought to the country as children to receive a renewable two-year period of deferred action from deportation and become eligible for a work permit.

On Feb 18, Biden and congressional Democrats submitted the citizenship act to Congress for passing into law. The White House quoted Biden as saying:"The legislation I sent to Congress will bring about much needed change to an immigration system where reform is long overdue. It will responsibly manage the border with smart investments. It will address the root causes of irregular migration from Central America. It will modernize our legal immigration pathways and create an earned path to citizenship for so many-including Dreamers, farmworkers and TPS (temporary protected status) holders."

Biden has said that he may accept a more-piecemeal approach if separate major elements could be approved.

Separately, enforcement guidelines released on Feb 18 by the Biden administration will target immigration enforcement more directly at people living illegally in the country who pose a threat. That, too, will be a reversal from the broader targeting policy of Immigration and Customs Enforcement under Trump.

In the first week of February, Biden signed three more executive orders on immigration. The first created a task force led by secretary of homeland security that will work to reunite families that were separated at the border under the Trump administration. The second was to investigate the root humanitarian issues at the US' southern border. And the third ordered a full review of the previous administration's immigration policies.

Biden, however, may face internal and external pressures in reversing the Trump-era restrictive immigration policies. For example, after devastating hurricanes wreaked havoc in parts of Central America in November, many people were left homeless and jobless. And Biden's promise to lift immigration bans could encourage them to head toward the US in search of a better life.

The Trump administration took the toughest possible measures to restrict immigration, including building the wall along the border with Mexico, adopting a "zero tolerance" policy on immigration, deporting people and separating families, and banning people from seven Muslim countries from entering the US.

When thousands of people from Central American countries marched toward the US in October 2018, Trump sent soldiers to the US-Mexico border threatening to use force to stop them from crossing into the US.

And when the COVID-19 pandemic was at its peak in the US in 2020, Trump further tightened immigration rules in the name of disease prevention and control. Indeed, Trump used anti-immigration rules to please his supporters.

Biden holds the opposite view. He regards immigration as a key feature of American culture and considers immigrants as an important part of the labor force that contributes to the US economy.

Biden has also taken some other measures to reverse Trump's immigration rules, including halting the construction of the border wall. Yet it will not be easy for him to push forward his ambitious immigration policies. Trump modified and implemented more than 400 immigration rules, some overlapping each other, which makes Biden's policy reform a very challenging task.

A sweeping change of Trump's policies will have a huge impact on the US immigration system and could encourage waves of immigrants to head to the US. While immigration advocacy groups are pressuring Biden to allow entry to tens of thousands of immigrants blocked by Trump's policies, lax immigration policies could create new problems for US society. Accepting refugees will put added pressure on the US economy, and unrestricted flows of refugees can create opportunities for terrorists to slip into the country.

One of Trump's election planks in 2016 was banning the entry of illegal immigrants and he won. Worse, the pandemic has prompted more Americans to shun (rather hate) immigrants, and the idea of closing borders to cut the transmission chains of the novel coronavirus has gained more supporters in the US.

The Biden administration realizes the difficulties of reforming the immigration system, and knows that it is a long-term process that requires huge funds.

Potential immigrants, on their part, should know that streamlining immigration rules is a difficult task and therefore should not be overoptimistic about Biden fulfilling all his immigration promises in the short term.

The author is a research fellow at the Charhar Institute and a member of the Chinese Institute of Command and Control. The views don't necessarily reflect those of China Daily.

If you have a specific expertise and would like to contribute to China Daily, please contact us at opinion@chinadaily.com.cn, and comment@chinadaily.com.cn.

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