Biden’s immigration relief breaks pattern of enforcement-heavy rhetoric

Pollsters are predicting that President Biden’s immigration relief moves will give him a boost among battleground state Latinos, a key demographic ahead of November’s general election.

Days after Biden’s order, former President Trump told a podcast host he would essentially staple a green card to every U.S. college diploma earned by a foreign national, a proposal that’s popular among business circles but would likely require an act of Congress.

The immigration debate’s swing into a buyer’s market for certain groups follows years — if not decades — of polling showing the general public broadly favors a fair immigration system.

Biden’s announcement, which promises a path to citizenship for about half a million undocumented immigrants married to or adopted by U.S. citizens, changed a pattern many immigrants thought was etched in stone.

“Since the beginning of the Trump era, there has been a feeling that things are only going to go backward, and this is a significant — a really significant announcement, and proof that we can actually move forward in a way that’s actually good for these families,” said Rep. Greg Casar (D-Texas).

Public debate on the topic has centered on security and enforcement — with in-depth argumentation about specific policies such as wall construction or Title 42 expulsions — while discussion of the immigration system itself is often framed around broader concepts such as “comprehensive immigration reform” or “path to citizenship.”

Over the last two decades, no major bill to reform or improve immigration processes has passed, though enforcement funding has more than tripled since the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) was created in 2003.

That’s made many immigrant communities skeptical that any beneficial change could be coming their way; immigration and border policy has been a one-way street for a generation.

A poll of voters conducted between April and May in battleground states by Equis found both parties underwater with Hispanics on immigration: Only 38 percent of respondents said they trust Biden and Democrats on immigration, while 41 percent trust Trump and Republicans.

Broad majorities of respondents said their problem with Democrats is they haven’t delivered reform, and their issue with Republicans is they’re too harsh.

“Broken promises” by Democrats was listed as a top concern by 72 percent of respondents, and 65 percent listed a failure to deliver a pathway to citizenship.

Trump’s negatives came in at 64 percent of respondents concerned about his “extreme measures” and “racism and division,” and 62 percent about “border politics and chaos.”

Proposals such as Trump’s green card pitch, which has already been panned by restrictionist groups that generally support him, has historically been a priority of business interests and East and South Asian immigrant groups.

It’s unlikely to move the needle among Latinos, but it’s also unknown so far whether Biden’s announcement is attracting converts.

A separate poll conducted for UnidosUS in mid-May found that the economy is by far the most important issue for Latino voters, but on immigration, 53 percent said their top priority is providing a path to citizenship for long-term undocumented immigrants, and 42 percent pushed for a path to citizenship for Dreamers, undocumented immigrants brought to the country as minors.

The top enforcement-related concern for that poll’s respondents was cracking down on human smugglers, listed by 29 percent, followed by 28 percent who cited the need for more border security.

Those priorities are far from a secret among Latinos — an entire ecosystem of advocacy groups has been pushing for immigrant relief for decades.

“First, Latino voters, like other Americans, are frustrated by the situation at the southern border and by the seeming impasse in Washington on getting a solution. This frustration is demonstrated by increased openness to a variety of options Latino voters may not have entertained before, but this frustration should not be misinterpreted as a fundamental shift among Latino voters,” said Clarissa Martínez de Castro, president of the Latino Vote Initiative at UnidosUs.

“What is clear from our poll is that the top immigration priority for Latino voters remains providing relief to the long-term undocumented in this country, and Latino voters are more frustrated by the lack of support for immigrants than they are by the situation at the border.”

That’s why Biden’s immigrant relief initiative, which essentially makes it easier for qualifying undocumented immigrants to clean up their paperwork, was met with full-throated support by advocacy groups, particularly those on the left.

Along with the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program of 2012 and its sister program, 2014’s Deferred Action for Parents of Americans and Lawful Permanent Residents (DAPA), Biden’s announcement is the only major victory in decades for those who prioritize a path to citizenship.

But it’s still up in the air whether Biden’s program — due to start receiving applications in August — will result in green cards for half a million spouses and adoptive children of U.S. citizens, or whether it will suffer the fate of DAPA.

DAPA never signed up beneficiaries because it was blocked by lawsuits and essentially buried by the Supreme Court in 2016 in a 4-4 decision that affirmed a lower court’s injunction.

“There was the huge excitement around both DACA and DAPA being announced, and then, tragically, DAPA taking the huge hit that it took,” said Casar.

“I think that this one could wind up being of enormous importance, because there’s so much, I think, despair in mixed-status families and in Latino districts like mine, that nothing’s ever going to get done, and I think this could crack open that despair and provide a path of hope. And I think that’s really important.”

For the Biden administration to provide that path, advocates warn, an announcement that falls flat in court won’t cut it.

“So if you’re looking at it from an operational standpoint, you know the administration is going to need to enroll folks quickly and soon to be able to pull this off,” said Cris Ramón, senior immigration policy advisor at UnidosUS.

“It really has to sell this policy to the community, but also needs to be able to be able to work with trusted community-based organizations and legal service providers to ensure that people can navigate this process and be able to get the protection that they deserve.”

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