Austin’s immigrant advocates are optimistic about a Biden administration—but experts caution patience
Local immigration advocates expect that, very soon after President-elect Joe Biden is inaugurated on Jan. 20, he will begin overturning federal policies implemented during the Trump administration. And then they expect demand for immigrant legal services in Austin to jump.
"We should see an immediate influx," said Justin Estep, director of immigration legal services at Catholic Charities of Central Texas.
In particular, Estep and other local advocates expect Biden to reinstate Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, which allows certain undocumented individuals who were brought to the U.S. as children to receive a renewable two-year period of deferred action from deportation and become eligible for a work permit.
The Trump administration attempted to stop the program, prompting the U.S. Supreme Court to rule in July that it must be reinstated. However, the Department of Homeland Security then announced that it would reject all requests associated with DACA and limit the period of renewed deferred action to one year.
Once in office, Biden will be able to overturn the Trump-era changes relatively easily, with a memo, said Sarah Pierce, a policy analyst at the Migration Policy Institute.
For many Austinites, this will be a welcomed change.
Nearly one in five city residents is foreign-born, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, and the Austin-Round Rock metro has the 19th largest population of unauthorized immigrants in the country, according to a 2019 report from the Pew Research Center.
"We absolutely expect there to be some changes that make things easier for our clients," said Robert Painter, managing attorney for American Gateways, which provides immigrant legal services to low-income residents in Austin and San Antonio.
Both Painter and Estep expressed optimism that other policy changes—especially around the asylum seeking process—would come with the new administration.
But Pierce said they may be disappointed.
In particular, Trump's "Remain in Mexico" program, which allows U.S. border officers to send non-Mexican asylum seekers to Mexico as they await a ruling on their immigration claim, will be harder to undo.
Immigration was the Trump administration's top policy priority, Pierce explained. As such, his appointees helped transform the federal immigration landscape over the last four years, using multiple bureaucratic tools to "layer" policies—and making them harder to undo
"It's genius," she told Austonia.
The Biden administration, as a result, has its work cut out for it when it comes to immigration policy—not to mention managing the federal COVID response and addressing the economic fallout of the pandemic.
"Immigration will not even be in their top five priorities," Pierce said. "There's so much more going on in the country, and also immigration has never been a politically beneficial issue for the Democrats to pursue."
Despite this, she expects there to be an increase in the number of migrants crossing the U.S.-Mexico border come January.
"This is a business opportunity," she said, adding that smugglers pay attention to policy changes.
Painter expects to see an increase in local demand for certain legal services, such as asylum claims, that were effectively non-starters under the Trump administration. He is also looking forward to more stability in federal immigration policy.
"It can change day-to-day," he said of the bureaucratic layering that Pierce observed, which made his clients' cases more complex.
But until Biden is in office, there is little Painter can do for his clients other than encourage them to think through their immigration status and prepare any relevant paperwork.
"The thing that we want to emphasize to all of our clients is there is no Biden administration yet," he said. "People have to be patient."
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