Activists want Biden to defund ICE, overhaul migrant detention policies

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Executive orders and reform proposal are welcome, but president must deliver legalization and change culture at federal agencies, advocates say

Inmates walk down a hallway at the Otay Mesa Detention Center Wednesday, Aug. 23, 2017, in San Diego. The facility was at the center of the first big novel coronavirus outbreak at a U.S. immigration detention center in April 2020. (AP Photo/Gregory Bull)

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EL PASO, Texas (Border Report) – Gustavo Torres recalls how the election of Barack Obama and a Democratic-controlled Congress in 2008 raised hopes among immigrants lacking legal status at the time.

Gustavo Torres

“They controlled the House, the Senate and the White House, and they did not deliver for us,” said the executive director of CASA, a Maryland-based immigrant rights organization. “I hope that’s not going to be the case again, I hope we are going to pass immigration reform for 11 million (people) this time.”

That sour precedent is tempering the hopes of advocates across the country, even as they celebrate President Biden’s executive orders and the path to citizenship for unauthorized immigrants that he outlined this week.

Biden’s executive orders include ending a travel ban from Muslim countries, fortifying the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, and directing immigration enforcement agencies to conduct a review of detention and deportation priorities.

He also unveiled an immigration reform project that would give “green cards” or legal permanent status to millions of people in five years and allow them to become citizens three years later.

But Nanci Palacios, a DACA benefits recipient and member of Florida’s La Red, said she’s been getting telephone calls from members of the clergy and other activists regarding the chances of the proposal becoming law.

“They’re wanting to know what’s next, how we can hold this administration accountable. As hopeful as they are, they’re also scared because they’ve been let down so many times,” the immigration activist said. “For me, this gives me a lot of hope, but words without action are meaningless.”

Activists also want Biden to go further on immigration by including immigrant stakeholders in the review of detention and enforcement practices, defund federal agencies like U.S. Customs and Immigration Enforcement (ICE), and not give in to Republicans who may want more border security in exchange for their vote.

“Immigration reform needs to be done quickly and without quid pro quo,” said Patrice Lawrence, co-director of UndocuBlack Network.

Cynthia Garcia, a United We Dream member from Oklahoma, fears executive orders alone won’t change an aggressive culture at federal immigration agencies.

“We know memos alone won’t change the culture in ICE and CBP that have operated without accountability,” she said. Biden “must decrease funding and hold them accountable for the pain and suffering.”

Garcia wants Biden to order agencies to release detainees, do away with voluntary departure procedures that are everything but voluntary, and end cooperation agreements such as the 287g program that turn some local police departments into immigration enforcers.

“We know that collaboration between local police and Immigration were amplified during the Trump administration, but they already existed,” she said. Biden must not only drive passage of the immigration reform bill, but “if we really want to be serious about these agencies, we must defund these agencies and stop local police cooperation.”

Jacinta Gonzalez, senior field organizer for Mijente, a Latino advocacy organization, said Biden’s review of detention and deportation policies should be overseen by stakeholders.

“We cannot trust (federal immigration agencies) to conduct their own review. The voices of those who are directly impacted must be taken into account on any changes,” Gonzalez said.

She called for a complete overhaul of the immigration enforcement system and emptying and shutting down detention centers “that have led to the separation of families and the spread of COVID-19.”  

The Pew Research Center estimates that 60% of undocumented immigrants live in 20 metropolitan areas that include Texas, California and the East Coast.

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