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Busting Myths about Forced Migrants: Inhumane Immigration Policies

“Busting Myths about Forced Migrants” is a blog series authored by student volunteers from IRAP’s law school chapters. Each month, a different IRAP chapter dispels a common misconception related to refugee issues. We hope this series will provide readers with talking points for the dinner table when you hear a myth being perpetuated. Thank you to IRAP Fordham for contributing the fourth installment in this series.

The Trump Administration Is Gone, But Inhumane Immigration Policies Are Not.

The Biden Plan for Securing our Values as a Nation of Immigrants notes that “Trump has waged an unrelenting assault on our values and our history as a nation of immigrants” and promises that it will stop “when Joe Biden is elected president.” This message perpetuates a myth that has become prevalent in the news cycle and public discourse: inhumane immigration policies started with Trump, and therefore ended with his defeat.

Although the Trump Administration’s policies undeniably had a devastating, calculated, and unprecedented effect on refugees and asylum seekers, past administrations were also harsh on immigrants. For example, while the Obama Administration’s executive actions allowed a significant number of immigrants without legal status to stay in the United States (although without providing a clear path to ever obtaining legal status), they also deported more immigrants than any previous administration by mandating that police departments cooperate with the federal government on deportations. The Obama Administration also utilized family detention for those awaiting immigration hearings, usually through expedited proceedings and without legal representation, making it so that people who would have otherwise qualified for asylum were being sent back to the life-threatening conditions from which they had fled.

The Trump Administration’s systematic approach to attacking immigrants significantly expanded upon these harsh immigration policies by creating nearly insurmountable obstacles to finding safe harbor in the United States, including but not limited to: increasing filing fees by hundreds of dollars for many immigration applications, imposing a new fee for asylum applications, lowering the number of refugees the United States admits (also known as the refugee cap) far below any other President, tailoring case law and advisories from his Attorney Generals to make it almost impossible to qualify for asylum, and using health restrictions as a way to block people fleeing for their lives.

So, what actions has the Biden Administration taken to start undoing the damage from Trump’s assault on our values as a nation that has a longstanding tradition of welcoming migrants, as promised? The answer is some, but not as much as people might think.

There are certainly achievements to celebrate, one being the Biden Administration’s decision to immediately lift the infamous travel ban. In February, the Biden Administration lifted the freeze on green cards that the Trump Administration ordered under the guise of protecting the job market during the pandemic. The Biden Administration has also announced that they will no longer enforce the Trump Administration’s public charge rule, which allowed the government to deny immigration applications if they deemed the applicant to not have sufficient financial means and would be at risk of relying on public benefits.

However, although the Biden Administration’s proposed policies on refugees are ambitious, many have not yet led to concrete actions because Biden delayed signing a presidential determination to raise the refugee cap. Until he signed a presidential determination, Trump’s historically low admissions goal had remained in place. Typically, signing a presidential determination takes place almost immediately after a policy announcement. In this case, the delay stretched for months, which had very real consequences for thousands of refugees waiting to be resettled. It means that despite the Biden Administration’s promise to increase the Trump Administration’s record low number of refugee admissions from 15,000 to 62,500, they are now on track to admitting the lowest number of refugees in the history of the Refugee Act – according to a report by the International Rescue Committee. As of the halfway point of this fiscal year, the Biden Administration has only admitted 2,050 refugees.

Many refugees, advocates, and government officials thought that refugees would be resettled sooner because changing refugee caps does not require congressional approval. Past presidents have changed the cap shortly after notifying Congress, and Biden has promised that he would raise the cap. In fact, the State Department booked flights for refugees because they anticipated that the Biden Administration would have replaced previous refugee policies by now. However, over 700 flights had to be cancelled. That is at least 700 people for whom security and stability are still out of reach because of Biden’s unjustifiable administrative delays to his commitments. Some people had sold belongings and cancelled leases, only to find their scheduled flights had been indefinitely pushed back. Other people went to airports to meet family members being resettled as refugees in the United States, only to find out in the airport that the flight was cancelled and that after years of being separated, they would have to wait even longer.

Criticism and outrage pressured Biden to sign the presidential determination on May 3 and recommit to his promise to increase the refugee cap. The presidential determination returned the refugee cap to regional allocations. However, as the saying goes, talk is cheap. While Biden has inspirational plans to uphold American values as a nation that welcomes immigrants, without sufficient action, Biden will continue the legacy of Trump and Obama and all those who came before: America cannot live up to its aspiration to defend the “huddled masses” if presidential administrations continue promulgating inhumane immigration policies.

Rebecca Davis is a 3L at Fordham University School of Law from Lancaster, PA. She serves as Community Manager for IRAP Fordham. She is a Pro Bono Scholar working full-time in Fordham’s Immigrant Rights Clinic, and she plans to practice immigration law after graduation.