This week, we read about the Biden administration’s ‘broken promises’ regarding immigration reform, a historic backlog in immigration courts, and a surge in COVID-19 cases in immigrant detention centers.
While the Biden administration promised changes to immigration policy, a year into the term, little has changed. Many immigration advocates are increasingly frustrated at ‘broken promises’ made by the administration.
Many efforts to reform the immigration system have been put on hold. Additionally, several Trump-era immigration practices such as “Remain in Mexico” are still in place.
The Biden administration has won some immigration victories, such as establishing more detailed guidelines for who is priority for arrest and deportation. However, immigration lawyers such as Inna Simakovsky note that these guidelines are not foolproof. One of her clients—a woman who immigrated over 20 years ago, pays taxes, is employed, and has no criminal record—has not benefitted from the rule. She still lives in fear of deportation.
The new guidance is supposed to shift the priority to removing noncitizens that pose a threat to national security. However, many immigration lawyers in the U.S. are skeptical that this is actually happening.
Many immigrants cannot afford to wait for ICE to act on a new policy. Immigrants and advocates remain confused and disappointed by the administration’s lack of action on immigration.
“It’s very confusing. On one hand, they want to be our friends, and extend the hand of a friend. And with the other, they’re beating us down, and they’re sending us back,” said Miguel Arauko, asylum-seeker from Mexico, journalist, and restaurant owner.
Immigration courts face a historic backlog for immigrants seeking asylum. At the end of the year, the number of backlogged cases reached 1.6 million, which is higher than ever.
The massive backlog is yet another immigration issue facing President Biden. Though the administration promised otherwise, they have yet to reverse many of Trump’s harsh immigration policies.
“These findings suggest that the immigration courts are entering a worrying new era of even more crushing caseloads — all the more concerning since no attempt at a solution has yet been able to reverse the avalanche of cases that immigration judges now face.” from a report released by the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse.
While the pandemic has contributed to the backlog, the Homeland Security Department is adding new cases at alarming rates.
The pandemic has also revealed that immigration courts are not a priority for the Justice Department. When other courts started virtual hearings, immigration courts took another seven months to implement them. Immigration judges reported that immigration courts do not get the attention or resources they need.
The backlog has been steadily increasing through several administrations. Though, in the last few months under President Biden, it has ‘imploded.’
Immigration attorneys are feeling the effects of the backlog, particularly as it relates to their clients. Jodi Goodwin, immigration attorney, reported that almost all of her asylum-seeking clients won’t have their cases heard for one to three years. She said that the system is ‘beyond repair’ and has ‘already imploded.’
COVID-19 infections among immigrants in ICE detention centers have increased by 520% since the beginning of 2022. This surge has brought about new vaccination efforts and pressure to release detainees.
Eight percent of detainees have active COVID-19 cases. The surge comes after a nationwide increase due to the Omicron variant. ICE officials defend their response to the outbreak. They note that they expected an increase due to Omicron. ICE officials also said that they require detainees to quarantine and test for the virus upon arrival.
Though, the increase has raised concerns about ICE’s vaccination efforts for detainees. Additionally, the agency has kept thousands of immigrants with medical conditions in detention.
ICE records also show that almost 40% of immigrants have declined the vaccine. Public health experts said this is likely due to lack of education and information and government distrust.
Immigration advocates have encouraged the agency to release detainees with serious medical conditions.
“The number of people who are medically vulnerable in ICE custody is shocking. The Biden administration needs to take a very quick and hard look at who they are detaining and be very aggressive about making sure they are releasing people to the safety of their homes,” said Eunice Cho, an American Civil Liberties Union lawyer.
Public health experts are urging the government to increase efforts to protect migrants in detention.
“The government absolutely has a responsibility to protect individuals it detains, as well as staff and surrounding communities, from a serious threat such as COVID by using all reasonable tools including education, population reduction, testing, masks, and vaccinations including boosters,” said Allen.