Julie Gonzales was in her senior year of high school when federal lawmakers introduced the DREAM Act, designed to grant deportation relief, secure the right to work, and eventually offer permanent residency to undocumented immigrants who were brought to the United States as children.
Nineteen years later, the DREAM Act has yet to be passed, and related iterations of the proposal have come and gone.
"So we’ve seen both parties play political games with people’s lives for the entirety of my adult life," says Gonzales, now a Democratic state senator representing Denver, who campaigned for Joe Biden in Colorado.
With Biden set to take office in January, Gonzales and other Colorado immigration advocates believe that a long-overdue, ambitious reform platform can and must be adopted. But broken promises and lessons learned from Barack Obama's administration have left some of them wary.
Biden campaigned on a promise to quickly reverse some of President Donald Trump's most notorious immigration actions, including the Muslim ban, the attempt to chip away at DACA protections, and the return-to-Mexico policy for immigrants and asylum seekers. But signing executive orders to overturn these policies should just be the start, say immigrant-rights advocates.
"We’re stuck in the famous Malcolm X quote: We’ve been stabbed in the back with a six-inch knife. We can’t have people pull it out three inches and tell us it’s progress," says Hans Meyer, a Denver immigration attorney who runs the Meyer Law Office.
"There’s no doing this halfway. If we’re going to change the regime and change the way we look at immigration, we’re going to have to do that top-down. It will take a significant amount of political courage," explains Meyer, who wants to see the elimination of private prisons being used for immigration enforcement, a more nuanced enforcement policy, and that elusive legislative reform that will create a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants.
Meyer and Gonzales, once colleagues, have witnessed the transitions between presidential administrations and seen nothing but growth for Immigration and Customs Enforcement, they say.
"ICE under Homeland Security at the Bush administration created a number of immigration enforcement tools that, quite frankly, the Obama administration perfected," notes Gonzales, "and then the Trump administration used those tools to rip thousands of families apart needlessly."
Adds Meyer: "The Obama administration only dealt with the deportation machine and changed it when it became a political issue for them in the 2012 election."
Some key players from the Obama administration's immigration-policy team are now working on Biden's transition team. "I hope that they’ve learned from the mistakes from prior administrations and will chart a path forward for solutions in the years to come," Gonzales says.
But Liz Jordan, an attorney with the Denver-based Civil Rights Education and Enforcement Center who has sued ICE on multiple occasions, is pessimistic that Biden will chart that path. "Agency culture is something that is pretty hard to tackle," she notes. "ICE detention has been, since the birth of this agency, a one-way ratchet. The numbers just go up and up and up. INS detention was not nice, but the numbers were much smaller. Their budget has grown, their contracting has grown, the number of people detained has really grown."
ICE maintains that its aims will remain the same under a Biden administration.
“The mission of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement has remained unchanged since its inception — to protect America from the cross-border crime and illegal immigration that threaten national security and public safety by enforcing laws passed by Congress. This mission is executed through the enforcement of more than 400 federal statutes, and focuses on smart immigration enforcement, preventing terrorism and combating the illegal movement of people and goods," says Mike Alvarez, a spokesperson for ICE.
While immigration laws may not change, however, a presidential administration and especially its attorney general can set the tone for how ICE works to uphold those laws.
For example, the Biden administration could reinstate a more robust practice of prosecutorial discretion, allowing ICE lawyers to decide which immigration cases to take and which to pass on. Biden could also implement hierarchies of enforcement, which would push ICE to focus more on undocumented immigrants with serious criminal convictions rather than those with minor or zero convictions. Obama implemented both of these policies during his tenure.
"They have no need to pick someone up who had a taillight out and put them in immigration detention when we all know that’s not an offense that subjects them to mandatory detention," says Laura Lunn, a lawyer who represents ICE detainees in Colorado through the Rocky Mountain Immigrant Advocacy Network.
By adopting a hierarchy of enforcement, the administration could cut down on the number of people in the Aurora Contract Detention facility, run by private-prison company GEO Group through a contract with ICE.
"The Biden administration ideally will hold up what they’ve said they’re going to do, and that is to decrease detention, with the ultimate goal of ending incarceration of non-citizens," says Lunn. "I think that if we’re looking locally, that would mean a decrease in the population at the Aurora facility, if not ideally ending the detention of folks there. But that would be a pretty heavy lift within a four-year period of time."
Michael Bennet, the Democratic senior senator from Colorado, takes on a hopeful tone when talking about immigration and the incoming administration.
“I look forward to working with the Biden-Harris administration on many immigration priorities: comprehensive immigration changes that create a pathway to citizenship for 11 million undocumented immigrants, as well as DREAMers; making the DACA program permanent; ending President Trump's executive order banning travelers from some Muslim-majority countries; and reversing a slew of Trump policies, including the construction of a U.S.-Mexican border wall and implementation of the public-charge rule," Bennet says, adding that he also hopes to see more protections for immigrant detainees.
Still, the ability of the Biden administration to enact comprehensive legislative reform could depend on the result of the election runoffs in Georgia, which will determine which party has a majority in the Senate.
"I don’t think it’s impossible to get comprehensive reform in a Republican-controlled Senate," says Congressman Jason Crow, a Democrat who represents parts of the eastern Denver metro area. "It obviously becomes much harder, but it’s not impossible, and not something we would stop fighting for."
If the Senate is unable to agree with the House on comprehensive immigration reform, Crow says, he thinks that the budgeting and appropriations process could be used to chart the future of immigration enforcement in the U.S..
Jordan agrees. "ICE is as powerful as the number of dollars it has to spend," the attorney says. "The administration or Congress could work together to rework the budget."
While Gonzales is concerned about the makeup of the U.S. Senate, which she considers "broken," she contends that grassroots advocacy can still make a difference in where Congress goes on immigration issues.
"To me, it’s on us. It’s on us as communities, and it’s on us as organizers and local and state elected officials, to fight for the policies and practices that will improve people’s lives, improve the economy, and restore sanity to broken systems," Gonzales says.
And fighting is exactly what Colorado's most well-known immigrant-rights organization plans to do.
"We’re feeling very optimistic to know that the end of the Trump administration is here and we’ll be able to work with a Biden administration to get these policies in place," says Ian Pham, a spokesperson for the Colorado Immigrant Rights Coalition Action Fund.
Key to that work is the policy that would provide a pathway to citizenship for the 11 million undocumented individuals in this country. Says Pham, "We’re going to be holding [Biden] accountable to that."
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