Joe Biden and Yvanna Cancela in a July 2019 event for Biden’s presidential campaign in Las Vegas. Cancela was the first high-profile Nevada Democrat to endorse Biden’s candidacy. (Photo: Jeniffer Solis)
If former Vice President Joe Biden represents the moderate lane of the Democratic Party, then immigration policy has come a long way.
“Joe Biden understands the pain felt by every family across the U.S. that has had a loved one removed from the country, including under the Obama-Biden Administration, and he believes we must do better to uphold our laws humanely and preserve the dignity of immigrant families, refugees, and asylum-seekers,” reads Biden’s website, directly acknowledging criticisms immigration advocates have of Barack Obama’s presidency, during which about 3 million immigrants were deported, more than any other president in modern history.
Biden’s plan is modest compared to rivals Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders and Julian Castro, but it signals a significant shift in the Democratic party, said Michael Kagan, director of the UNLV Immigration Clinic.
“If you assume that Joe Biden is positioned as the moderate of the Democratic Party and some of his main challenges are coming from the left, then his plan is really a marker of how much the Democratic Party has evolved on immigration,” Kagan said. “One of the most rhetorical parts of the Biden proposal,” Kagan said, referring to the passage on the campaign website, “is what amounts to a kind of apology for some of the deportations that occurred during the Obama presidency.”
Most deportations during the Obama administration came from immigrants caught at the border, but a significant amount of those deportations came from inside the country as a result of increased audits of I-9 forms used to verify work authorization, leading to deportations.
It wasn’t until Obama’s second term that he instituted enforcement priorities which essentially instructed ICE not to target people who did not have some type of serious criminal record.
By one study’s estimate, Obama’s second term enforcement priorities — the deportation of non-citizens who have been convicted of serious crimes, recent arrivals, and those who have violated recent deportation orders — protected 87 percent of undocumented immigrants in the U.S., or 9.6 million, from deportation.
Biden’s immigration plan builds on Obama’s second term, saying that as president he would focus deportation efforts on threats to public safety and national security while ending workplace raids and protecting sensitive locations such as schools and hospitals from enforcement
“Biden appears to be proposing to go back to that policy and perhaps strengthen it,” Kagan said.
The phrase “The Obama-Biden Administration” is mentioned throughout the plan — six times in total — but Obama left a complicated legacy when it comes to immigration that Biden will be forced to confront.
“Immigration is complicated for Vice President Biden in part because he has wanted to base his candidacy on the Obama legacy, but the Obama legacy on immigration is extremely complicated and filled with contradictions,” Kagan said.
The former vice president leads among Latinos in Clark County, according to a recent poll conducted by Mason-Dixon and released by Telemundo Station Group, which found Biden at 23 percent support, followed by Sanders at 18 percent and Warren with 7 percent. However, the poll had a sizable margin of error for at 5.6 percent.
“The Vice President has publicly acknowledged the pain of deportations, but knows that acknowledging that pain isn’t enough,” said a Biden campaign aide in a statement. “That is why he has also put forth an immigration policy that will forcefully pursue policies that safeguard our security, provide a fair and just system that helps to grow and enhance our economy, and secure our cherished values. The plan is the product of many conversations with advocates, elected officials, and organizations across the country to make sure that the plan is meeting both the urgency and long-term priorities of our immigration system.”
But that acknowledgment may not be enough to gain the trust of immigrants rights groups in Nevada, or their members, or their allies.
“I think he has some good points but by and large it’s a continuation of the status quo,” said Leo Murrieta the director for Make the Road Nevada Action, an organization that works with working class and immigrant communities. “I don’t see any teeth. This reminds me of the exact same system under Obama. We got a lot of promises and we got a lot of talk from Obama-Biden on the 2008 campaign trail and this immigration plan feels like a lot of talk.”
Nearly one in five residents in Nevada is an immigrant and almost one in six residents is a native-born U.S. citizen with at least one immigrant parent. Murrieta said he is one of many Nevada residents with a mixed-status family.
“You can’t just tell us we are going to go back to how things were because you are taking us out of the fire and putting us right back into the frying pan — that’s not going to cut it,” Murrieta said. “The work to rebuild the trust in immigrant communities still needs to be done by Joe Biden, the Democratic party and the rest of the candidates who are running to be president.”
“He has to own all of the Obama administration’s failures as well as its successes,” Murrieta said. “If he wants to ride his coat-tails he has to take them all.”
Bliss Requa-Trautz, director of Arriba Las Vegas Worker Center, a group that supports migrant and immigrant workers, says Biden’s plan does not go far enough.
“This plan falls far short of the commitments we are looking for in terms of executive action to not only repair the damage that has happened under this administration, but to begin to rebuild trust in the community and right the wrongs of the former administration or the wrongs of the past 20 years,” said Requa-Trautz.
The 2020 election is not the election of 2008, or 2012, or even 2016, says Requa-Trautz. New threats have to lead to a need for bolder measures.
“Immigrant rights groups across the country are calling for much more precise policies and a move away from the concept of comprehensive immigration reform that has failed for so many years,” Requa-Trautz said.
Long term goals, according to the platform Arriba is pushing, include moving past the national single massive “comprehensive immigration reform” proposals that have shaped the immigration debate for the past two decades but that have failed to materialize under previous administrations.
“We are looking to commitments to actions instead of kind words,” Requa-Trautz said, adding that his bill does not call for a moratorium on deportations pending an internal investigation of ICE and DHS, a priority for many immigrants rights groups.
“I think candidates can’t compare to platforms of previous administrations but need to adapt and develop their immigration policy reflective of the current moment that we’re living in,” Requa-Trautz said. “We need candidates who are willing to look closely at the reality we have today.”
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