President Joe Biden made a sweeping effort on his first day in office Wednesday to reverse many of his predecessor's hard-line immigration policies, drawing guarded optimism from local immigration advocates.
He directed his administration to preserve the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, which has offered legal protections to hundreds of thousands of immigrants who came as children without legal authorization. President Donald Trump had tried to rescind it. Biden requested Congress give DACA recipients permanent status and a path to citizenship.
"I feel like I can breathe again knowing that we have a path," said Karen Velez-Barron, a 24-year-old DACA recipient who lives in Inver Grove Heights. "Because this is our country at the end of the day. I've been here since I was 3 years old."
She recalled how terrified she had felt as a DACA recipient during the Trump years, as the administration rolled back DACA and many immigrants in the program were deported.
"I realized that I couldn't really talk to folks about it at all, because you just don't know — you feel like you're underneath people's shadows and you're not able to walk around freely," said Velez-Barron, who emigrated from Mexico.
She worried even after the Supreme Court last June found that the Trump administration's move to terminate DACA was unlawful but left a window open for future repeal. Trump officials then moved the cycle of recipients needing to renew their status from two years to one, and "it's scary because you have kind of this expiration date," Velez-Barron said.
She expressed support for Biden's choice of Alejandro Mayorkas to head the U.S. Department of Homeland Security — the nominee would be the first Latino and immigrant to hold the job.
The immigration bill that Biden is sending to Congress would also grant a path to citizenship for holders of Temporary Protected Status (TPS) and 11 million immigrants living here without legal permission.
Francisco Segovia welcomed the proposal, noting that there are people who've lived here under TPS for 30 years.
"Obtaining citizenship is basically being fully integrated into the new society. … Citizenship is the ability to fully participate," said Segovia, executive director of Communities Organizing Latinx Power and Action (COPAL) in Minneapolis.
He added that in a divided society — and Senate — Biden's proposal is just the beginning.
"This is going to be a negotiation process," said Segovia. "And it is going to be essential for the organized movement, for the pro-immigrant movement and allies, to come together to keep working towards the vision that we have, which is integration of every person into the mainstream society."
St. Paul immigration attorney Graham Ojala-Barbour has long told many clients under multiple administrations that there's no path to citizenship for them. He's met immigrants living here without legal status for decades, including those who have children and grandchildren who are U.S.-born citizens but cannot themselves apply for residency or a work permit.
"I think DACA is a beautiful thing and I support it. … I'm glad that Biden's plan goes beyond that to also include the 11 million undocumented people who don't qualify for DACA," said Ojala-Barbour.
Veena Iyer said she wants to see a pause on deportations so the new administration can look at policies "that were used to deprive folks over the last four years of due process, and be able to fix those." For example, she noted that the administration had reversed longstanding precedents that favored immigrants and led to many people being sent back to their former countries.
"It took four years to get all these policies in place," said Iyer, executive director of the Immigrant Law Center of Minnesota. "Unfortunately, I don't think we're going to be able to overturn them and rewind overnight. But I think if the administration puts the necessary resources to this … our hope is that the administration can quickly overturn all of this and really move to actually progress and create a more humane immigration system."
The nation's largest Muslim civil rights organization and several other Muslim community groups held a virtual town hall meeting Wednesday afternoon to celebrate Biden's repeal of Trump's "Muslim ban" that restricted visitors from some Muslim-majority countries.
Many of the speakers noted that Biden's presidency brings a new sense of relief for Muslim Americans but also warned of the difficult work that lies ahead to undo the effects of Trump's actions.
"Today is a day to celebrate the end of a ban that was a continuation of xenophobic and racist policies that the previous administration used to divide families and was an attempt to change what this nation will tolerate," said Mohamed Ibrahim, deputy director of the Minnesota chapter of CAIR.
Staff writer Faiza Mahamud contributed to this report.
Maya Rao • 612-673-4210