Biden Has Set the Tone on Immigration—But Will He Deliver for Me and My Family?
By Claudia Flores
I can still remember suddenly getting the call from my mother: “Turn on the TV—Obama is making an announcement on immigration.”
Confused but diligent to my mother's ask, I went and found the only television available in my college dorm. It was June 15, 2012, one day before my graduation ceremony at Santa Clara University. But it was also the day President Obama announced a new policy that would eventually be known as the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA. In the absence of action from Congress to fix our broken immigration system, the President was taking action to make sure that immigrants brought to this country as children not be deported. Immigrants like me.
“They are Americans in their heart, in their minds, in every single way but one: on paper,” President Obama would go on to say.
I knew then my life had changed, and I burst into tears. All the hard work my family and I had put in for me to obtain a college education would not go to waste. All the years living in fear of deportation because of my undocumented status would suddenly change. I felt a deep sense of hope and relief.
But more than eight years later, my future in America remains just as uncertain, and my ability to contribute to and live in the country that has become my home hinges on ongoing legal battles over the DACA program.
Still, much has changed since I first applied to DACA. Aside from lifting the looming shadow of deportation, the DACA program afforded me the ability to work lawfully in this country. With DACA's protection, I have been able to access jobs and professional opportunities that better match my talents and further educational training over the years. DACA gave me a renewed sense of confidence and purpose, which ultimately allowed me to turn my passion for helping others into a career in policy advocacy.
DACA also gave me the opportunity to envision a future in which I was a protagonist. It gave me a sense of belonging. I recall the first time I got a government-issued work permit, I couldn't stop looking at it. “It's my name on a government document,” I marveled. “I exist.”
You see, what we mean when we say “coming out of the shadows” is not that undocumented immigrants are hiding, but rather that the current policies often make us feel invisible. We have always been here, enriching communities and contributing to this country in myriad ways.
This has never been more true than it is today. Five million undocumented Americans, including 200,000 DACA recipients, are part of the nation's frontline workforce against the COVID-19 pandemic, and they have been deemed “essential,” in a country that often treats them as expendable.
These are workers who are keeping our country running, despite the great risk to their personal health and safety and the health and safety of their loved ones. These are the sacrifices that immigrants make each and every day for their families, for their communities, for the nation.
Unfortunately, while immigration has been central to the U.S. political debate for decades, our immigration system has not seen meaningful reform in more than 30 years. At the same time that Congress has failed to create adequate pathways for immigrants to enter the country legally and has done nothing to address the situation of those—like me—who have long been here without status, it has funded and built an unprecedented mass detention and deportation system.
Today, the United States spends more on federal immigration enforcement than on all federal criminal law enforcement combined. It was precisely this massive and unaccountable system that punishes immigrants and became a core focus of Trump's anti-immigration agenda. His administration, exploiting a system that is badly broken and in dire need for reform, used the executive branch to carry out policy changes that would further penalize and punish immigrants like me. More than 400 immigration executive actions and court challenges later, the deep damage that the Trump administration did to our immigration system will take some time to undo.
I am encouraged to see President Biden using the power of the bully pulpit, and his pen, to direct a new course for our nation's immigration policy. During his first month in office, President Biden has already issued at least 28 executive orders, and committed to a fast-track pathway to citizenship for Dreamers.
As one of the nearly 650,000 currently protected under the DACA program, I am hopeful but cautiously so. Anxiety still pervades in my life, and a looming Texas court ruling regarding DACA makes me increasingly worried about my future. I dream of the day that I no longer have to plan my life in two-year intervals or make choices based on fear.
As candidate, Joe Biden promised to “build back better.”
For me, “building back better” means working together to create an equitable, more just tomorrow for all of us. On immigration, this means creating a system that respects the dignity of others, and that ensures that families like mine are able to enjoy a sense of security in a better America, one that we can be proud of.
The idea that all my work and accomplishments can be erased with the stroke of a pen has prevented me from imagining brighter days. President Biden has now taken quick steps to establish a vision that is a dramatic reversal of the cruel immigration policies put in place by Trump. As he continues to lay the foundation for a more promising future, millions of undocumented Americans like myself will be looking towards his leadership in meeting this moment.
The actions and tone of his rhetoric thus far have been a breath of fresh air, but ultimately the true test of President Biden's accomplishments on immigration will be dictated by how many families like mine will finally have a permanent place in America.
This column orginally appeared in the Feb. 4 edition of Newsweek.