San Jose activists say politicians wager immigrants’ lives on Biden’s reform agenda
"Biden: Green cards for all, no exclusions" is projected against the Rotunda at San Jose City Hall during a protest for immigration reform on Jan. 20. Photo courtesy of Decolonial Action Lab.

President Joe Biden has big plans to overhaul America’s immigration system, specifically undoing some of former President Donald Trump’s most egregious anti-immigrant policies.

But local activists say Biden’s reform agenda doesn’t go far enough — or fast enough — and will force immigrants to remain in the shadows in Silicon Valley for years to come. There are an estimated 180,000 undocumented immigrants and 30,000 “Dreamers” in Santa Clara County, and advocates say Washington politicians are gambling with their lives.

“They’re using immigrants as political bargaining chips,” said Luis Angel Reyes Savalza, co-director of Pangea Legal Services, a Bay Area nonprofit that provides legal support for undocumented immigrants. “It’s too little, too late.”

Biden issued three executive orders centered on immigration Feb. 2, creating a task force to reunite families separated by the Trump administration, temporarily rolling back Trump’s Migrant Protections Protocols program and reviewing the United States’ long-standing public charge rule.

The Migrant Protections Protocols program, enacted by the Department of Homeland Security in 2019, requires immigrants seeking asylum at the Mexican border to remain there while the government processes their applications to enter. Commonly referred to as the “Remain in Mexico” program, it prevented 25,000 people from entering the country. The Biden administration admitted the first group of 25 such asylum seekers Feb. 19. They were taken to San Diego hotels to quarantine before making their way to their families, communities and sponsors across the country.

The public charge rule was enacted by Congress in 1882 and allows the U.S. government to deny visas to applicants who are likely to become dependent on government benefits. The rule was used by President Herbert Hoover in 1930 to deny Jewish immigrants entry into the country during the rise of the Nazi regime. The Trump administration aggressively applied it to immigrants likely to use Medicaid or food stamps.

 

The Biden administration’s immigration reform bill, the Citizenship Act of 2021, would also undo many of the policies enacted by Trump. If the bill passes, undocumented immigrants covered under the Deferred Action on Childhood Arrivals Act (DACA) — commonly known as Dreamers — would immediately be given legal status via a permanent resident card, or green card. Immigrants with Temporary Protected Status (TPS), such as those fleeing violence in their home countries, and undocumented farm workers would also be issued green cards. Trump infamously tried — and failed — to kill those programs.

Organizers from across the country have joined a campaign called Papeles Para Todos, or “Papers for All,” calling for immigration reform that provides legal status to all of the country’s undocumented immigrants.

Fermina Reyes, an organizer with Papeles Para Todos and an undocumented immigrant living in San Jose, said Biden’s Citizenship Act creates unnecessary division among undocumented immigrants. Reyes said she doubts the Biden administration will have much more success than the Obama administration did in passing comprehensive immigration reform.

“It’s important to continue struggling and fighting to help the community,” Reyes said. “Every four years, it’s going to be the same song.”

Yurina Guzman, who is also an undocumented immigrant volunteering with Papeles Para Todos, agreed and said Democrats have broken their promises to enact immigration reform for decades.

“For many many years, we have been lied to,” Guzman said. “The reforms are going to be in limbo … I don’t trust anything right now.”

Activists also complain most undocumented immigrants would have to wait five years before becoming eligible for permanent resident status under Biden’s bill. There are roughly a million undocumented immigrants and their children covered under DACA and TPS, according to the Center for American Progress and the National Immigration Forum. All others — including approximately 2.4 million farm workers of various legal statuses — would have to wait, according to advocacy group Farmworker Justice.

“Asking immigrants who have lived in this country for 20 to 30 years to wait five years before they receive permanent protections is a grave injustice,” said Reyes Savalza. “Immigrants have been at the forefront of this pandemic … but they’ve been excluded from COVID relief, despite paying these huge sums of money every single year.”

San Jose City Hall was the end point of a car caravan from Emma Prusch Farm on Jan. 20. Photo courtesy of Decolonial Action Lab.

Undocumented immigrants pay about $120 billion in local, state and federal taxes each year, according to the Center for American Progress. Immigrant farm workers have been particularly hard hit by COVID-19.

Aside from excluding the majority of undocumented immigrants, the bill also stands a slim chance of of passing under the current Senate, according to Reyes Savalza. Republicans can use the filibuster, a parliamentary move used by senators to block a vote, to thwart Democrats from passing the reform bill. Without changing the rule — or without the unlikely cooperation of Republicans — Democrats are unable to actually pass the Citizenship Act.

“Under the filibuster rule in the Senate, you need 60 votes,” Reyes Savalza said. “That’s going to continue to be a big roadblock … It’s going to be used as an excuse by the Democratic Party to say, ‘vote for us again.’”

Reyes Savalza said organizers across the country are preparing for a nationwide general strike on May Day, or May 1, to drive momentum toward meaningful immigration reform.

“We need immigration reform now,” Reyes Savalza said. “It’s going to take 11 million immigrants organizing.”

Reporter Tran Nguyen contributed to this story.

Contact Sonya Herrera at [email protected] or follow @SMHsoftware on Twitter.

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