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Biden should be taking a victory lap on his historic policy protecting migrants

The Biden administration should be more vocal about a new policy that further humanizes one of our most exploited populations.
Image: The Department of Homeland Security sign is seen on Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) Building in Washington.
The Department of Homeland Security sign is seen on an Immigration and Customs Enforcement building in Washington on Jan. 5. Celal Gunes / Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

Given the intense focus journalists place on migrants who come to the United States, it’s disappointing that they pay such little attention to the employers on this side of the border who recruit and exploit migrants and then, if they dare complain, fire them and make them even more vulnerable to deportation. The systematic oppression of migrants doesn’t get sufficient attention, partly because journalists haven’t done their jobs but also because those who are abused and exploited don’t speak up because they’re afraid or can’t speak up because they’ve been deported.

The systematic oppression of migrants doesn’t get sufficient attention, partly because those who are abused can’t speak up because they’ve been deported.

That’s why an announcement last week from the Biden administration that it will extend some protections to migrants reporting employer abuse was so historic. In a Jan. 13 news release, the Department of Homeland Security said that “noncitizen workers who are victims of, or witnesses to, the violation of labor rights, can now access a streamlined and expedited deferred action request process. Deferred action protects noncitizen workers from threats of immigration-related retaliation from the exploitive employers.” As a result, DHS noted, the whistleblower program confirmed the current administration’s “commitment to empowering workers and improving workplace conditions by enabling all workers, including noncitizens, to assert their legal rights.”

While I and multiple immigrant rights groups have generally criticized President Joe Biden for muddled immigration policies that carry forward former President Donald Trump’s misguided policies, I stand in agreement with those groups that were quick to praise Biden for this move.

“Today opens a pathway full of hope for those of us workers who fear reporting workplace abuses, so that we can come forward to share the challenges we face every day in hostile workplaces, suffering abuses like wage theft,” Jonas Reyes, a worker leader at Arriba Las Vegas Worker Center, said in a statement published on the website for the National Day Laborer Organizing Network, or NDLON. “When we speak up and exercise our rights, we face retaliation. These protections are an important step to be able to speak up safely, and an opportunity to improve our working conditions and our lives.”

The Biden administration should have played up this announcement and drawn attention to a new policy that will further humanize one of this society’s most exploited populations. Instead, the administration conveyed the news in a press release on the Friday before the three-day Martin Luther King Jr. holiday weekend. NDLON held a virtual news conference to discuss the policy change, and while it did an excellent job of humanizing migrant voices and shining a light on their real plights, as of Thursday, that video had barely more than 150 views. By not playing up the news of the new whistleblower policy, the Biden administration missed an opportunity to transform the immigration debate by focusing on a plan that helps migrant workers instead of punishing them.

That missed PR opportunity means that when the topic is Biden and immigration, one of his progressive moves is likely to be ignored. The focus will remain on his administration’s failures to distance itself from Trump and the presidents before him who have treated immigration not as a humanitarian crisis but as a law enforcement and national security problem.

The White House statements that were released this month during Biden’s first official visit to the U.S. border with Mexico focused on “new enforcement measures to increase security at the border” meant to “reduce the number of individuals crossing unlawfully between ports of entry.” At the same time, those statements claimed that such measures “will expand and expedite legal pathways for orderly migration and result in new consequences for those who fail to use those legal pathways.” Part of these measures includes a mobile phone app that migrants can now use to apply for asylum.

That missed PR opportunity means that when the topic is Biden and immigration, one of his progressive moves is likely to be ignored.

New data from Syracuse University’s Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse posted Wednesday said the immigration court backlog of close to 1.6 million cases is “the largest in history.” While the Biden administration’s announcement of a phone app may have been meant to decrease the number of people making the trek here, U.S. Code still makes it very legal for individuals to physically seek asylum at the U.S. border.

Despite the relative lack of attention the Biden administration and the media have given to the new DHS rule, the announcement does demonstrate that any real positive change in immigration policy will always come from grassroots movements. Rosario Ortiz, another worker leader at Arriba Las Vegas Worker Center, said in a statement that she and coworkers had met with U.S. Labor Secretary Marty Walsh and DHS Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas “to call for these protections.” Ortiz said, “I am proud of my coworkers and our brothers and sisters across the country who have helped open a pathway for others in our circumstances to seek the protections that we have won.”

That successful grassroots campaign is similar to the grassroots campaign that ended with Arizona voters last year granting in-state tuition to undocumented students. Like the whistleblower policy, the policy change was the result of a targeted campaign that took time to mature.

This kind of substantive change in national immigration policy that considers the rights of migrant workers has been long overdue. The groups who have been fighting for their communities know this, and there is no indication that they will slow down their efforts, no matter who’s in office — whether it’s Republicans who brag about being tough on immigrants or Democrats who are seemingly too afraid to draw attention to those fleeting moments when they’re doing right by them.