HOUSTON (AP) — For nearly 17 months, the Trump administration tried to deport the mother and daughter from El Salvador. The Biden administration may finish the job.
They are being held at a family detention center in remote Dilley, Texas, but have repeatedly been on the verge of deportation. The Friday before Christmas, both were driven to the San Antonio airport and put on a plane, only to be pulled off when attorneys working for immigrant advocacy groups filed new appeals.
“I have faith first in God and in the new president who has taken office, that he’ll give us a chance,” said the mother, who goes by the nickname “Barbi.” She left behind two other children in El Salvador and asked not to reveal her real name so as not to draw the attention of criminal gangs there.
Barbi’s daughter was 8 when they crossed the U.S. border in August 2019 and will turn 10 in a few weeks. “It’s not been easy,” she said.
It’s unlikely to get easier anytime soon.
President Joe Biden rushed to send the most ambitious overhaul of the nation’s immigration system in a generation to Congress and signed nine executive actions to wipe out some of his predecessor’s toughest measures to fortify the U.S.-Mexico border. But a federal court in Texas suspended his 100-day moratorium on deportations, and the immigration bill is likely to be watered down as lawmakers grapple with major coronavirus pandemic relief bill as well a second impeachment trial for former President Donald Trump.
Even if Biden gets most of what he wants on immigration, fully implementing the kind of sweeping changes he’s promised will take weeks, months — perhaps even years. That means, at least for now, there is likely to be more overlap between the Biden and Trump immigration policies than many of the activists who backed the Democrat’s successful campaign had hoped.
“It’s important that we pass policies that are not only transformative, inclusive and permanent but also that they are policies that do not increase the growth of deportation,” said Genesis Renteria, programs director for membership services and engagement at Living United for Change in Arizona, which helped mobilized Democratic voters in a battleground state critical to Biden’s victory.
Federal law allows immigrants facing credible threats of persecution or violence in their home country to seek U.S. asylum. Biden has ordered a review of Trump policies that sent people from Central America, Cuba and other countries to Mexico while their cases were processed — often forcing them into makeshift tent camps mere steps from American soil. He also has formed a task force to reunite immigrant children separated from their parents and halted federal funding to expand walls along the U.S.-Mexico border.
On Saturday, the Biden administration began withdrawing from agreements with El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras that restricted the ability of people to seek U.S. asylum.
But those orders likely won’t help Barbi and her daughter. They sought asylum, but were denied because of a Trump administration rule barring such protections for people who crossed other countries to reach the U.S. border. That measure has since been struck down in court.
Still, Barbi and her daughter, like others who have been held for months at Dilley, could be removed from the country at any time.
Advocates who originally commended Biden for championing immigration reform now worry that not enough will be done. Omar Jadwat, director of the American Civil Liberties Union's Immigrants’ Rights Project, called it “troubling” that Biden’s efforts “did not include immediate action to rescind and unwind more of the unlawful and inhumane policies that this administration inherited — and now owns.”
Biden administration officials have pleaded for more time, saying Trump’s policies are too wide-reaching to be rescinded overnight. But simply returning to pre-Trump practices — if Biden is able to actually achieve that — won’t be enough for many activists.
President Barack Obama was called the “deporter-in-chief” for removing a record number of immigrants during his eight years in office. His administration also built the detention center where Barbi is being held, as well as a similar facility in equally rural Karnes City, Texas, 95 miles to the east.
Biden has banned private prisons, but his order doesn’t apply to lockups like those in Dilley or Karnes City. Far from advocating their closure previously, Biden as vice president Biden flew to Guatemala during a 2014 surge of unaccompanied minors heading to the U.S. border and personally warned that his country would increase detention of families.
Another policy left untouched by Biden dates to March, when Vice President Mike Pence ordered the implementation of emergency health measures that sought to effectively bar immigrants entry into, or impose their speedy removal from, the U.S. to prevent the spread of the virus. Those restrictions have remained despite pending asylum claims and little evidence that sealing borders would curb the pandemic — and 183,000 immigrants have been removed from the U.S. under them since Oct. 1.
A White House spokesperson said the goal was to return the full U.S. asylum process back to a pre-Trump normal “as much as possible,” but noted that “we are living in the confines of the pandemic.”
Kennji Kizuka, a senior researcher and policy analyst for refugee protection at Human Rights First, said “with people who are in danger, the U.S. has a legal obligation to not return them to a place where they would face persecution, or torture or other harm.”
“That’s not something you can defer because it’s inconvenient in your policy plan,” Kizuka said.
Biden’s pledges to make quick improvements had raised hopes that are now fading along the border. The day before his Jan. 20 inauguration, immigrants staged a protest in the Mexican city of Nogales that ended with them heading to a border crossing into Arizona and asking to be processed for U.S. asylum.
A Customs and Border Protection officer said no but added, “Try again tomorrow.”
They came back the next day — but nothing had changed.
Weissert reported from Washington