GUEST ESSAY: Proposed immigration policy changes

Penn Yan Action Coalition

Welcome to the third in a series of columns exploring immigration issues facing the United States today. In this installment, we move from the system’s current mechanics and toward policy proposals. Clearly, Americans have had reason to object to the immigration policies of leaders on both sides of the aisle over the years. However, the new Biden administration’s approach may be cause for cautious optimism among advocates of reform.

The challenges confronting the incoming administration are dire. Immigration courts are overwhelmed by the sheer number of pending cases, which increased by 238% across the last administration’s term, a backlog that is exacerbated by a lack of judges. Crucially, only 1.3% of these cases involve criminal charges, contrary to widely held perceptions. In addition, massive immigrant detention numbers are bolstered by profit-driven private companies and state and local governments, who are de-incentivized from taking action to bring about meaningful reform. There are also delicate labor issues to contend with, as highly-skilled migrants may compete with native-born citizens for some jobs, though immigrants contribute overall to the health of the economy.

Immigration opponents insist that newcomers must simply seek legal status legitimately, while consistently voting for a party that moves to limit whatever legitimate path exists. The Biden administration’s strategy preserves and expands that path, a humane approach that would fulfill America’s promise of welcoming the “huddled masses,” with no indication of establishing “open borders” or other frightening but baseless buzzwords. To that end, Biden and congressional Democrats have introduced the US Citizenship Act of 2021, which we’ll discuss in greater detail in our next column.

Addressing the root causes of irregular migration is an important element of the Biden plan, but it remains necessary to reform the system for immigrants who reach and pass our borders. A key theme of the new administration’s strategy is to enact policies that separate immigration enforcement from the criminal justice system. The Biden White House hopes to direct funds away from punitive measures and toward initiatives to help non-citizens come into compliance with the law and the protections that it affords. The shift from punishment to compliance has the added benefit of lowering costs to taxpayers. Currently, the budget for Customs & Border Protection (CBP) and ICE is over $25 billion a year, more than that of all other federal enforcement agencies combined.

This prioritization is evident in some of the “Day 1” executive actions Biden has taken. The first of these directs enforcement agencies to focus on immigrants suspected of terrorism and to determine who represents true public safety risks -- a tiny fraction of a percent of all currently pending cases. The moratorium on deportations, the end of the Muslim and African travel ban, and the pause on the construction of the border wall all reflect this shift away from thinking of immigrants as dangerous invaders, and toward treating them as human beings deserving of respect, dignity, and individual consideration.

Most clearly representative of the "criminalization" approach was the past administration’s family separation policy. Conceived under President Obama to remove children from potentially dangerous adults on a case-by-case basis, the Trump administration expanded the practice to include all immigrants seeking entry at our southern border, painting them with the broad brush of implied criminality. (Remember, a first illegal border crossing is a misdemeanor, not a felony; moreover, many of the immigrants caught up in this criminalized process at the southern border present themselves at legal points of entry and are implicated in no crime whatsoever.) The expanded policy caused widespread backlash as images of children languishing in cages at detention facilities went public, and Biden has made it a priority to end the practice and reunite families, signing an executive order to that effect on Feb. 2.

As always, political reality is unpredictable. Plans may change or be abandoned, but it’s likely that Biden’s decriminalization strategy will persist in some way. To read through the sources we used to compile this article, visit this link: http://bit.ly/3bwemTz.


Here are six more of the 128 questions from the US citizenship exam; use them to test yourself against what immigrants are expected to know to become citizens:

1. Name one thing the US Constitution does.

2. There are three branches of government. Why?

3. Why does each state have two senators?

4. What does the president's cabinet do?

5. What is the purpose of the 10th amendment?

6. Why were the Federalist Papers important?

Finally, we’re excited to announce the title for our next Community Read to be held this spring: “Home Now,” by Cynthia Anderson. Email us at pyactioncoalition@gmail.com to enter a drawing to win two free copies of the book -- enough for you and a friend. And as always, please send us your questions and comments about our efforts.

The Penn Yan Action Coalition are: Alexander Andrasik, Cindy Gorham-Crevelling, Scarlett Emerson, Claudia Guthrie, Debbie Koop, Anne Meyer-Wilber, and Mickey and Ed Schultz

Answers to Citizenship Questions

1. Forms the government; defines powers of government; defines the parts of government; protects the rights of the people

2. So one part does not become too powerful; checks and balances; separation of powers

3. Equal representation (for small states); the Great Compromise (Connecticut Compromise)

4. Advises the president

5. It states that powers not given to the federal government belong to the states or to the people

6. They helped people understand the Constitution; they supported passing the Constitution