How promises by Biden on immigration reform are giving hope to these three NJ women
The Associated Press spoke with Latino voters in the United States about key issues, including immigration, for the interview series "AP Newsmakers." (Nov. 3) AP Domestic
Sayreville's Amina Nasser wants to be reunited with the 11-year-old son she hasn't seen in person since she left Kenya a decade ago.
In Garfield, Sandra Brito hopes for permanent legal residency, so she won't have to worry about deportation for her family, which arrived from Mexico nearly 20 years ago.
And Keturah Maingrette of West Orange dreams of one day attending medical school. For that, the Haitian native will need student loans that have been difficult to get given her uncertain legal status.
"We are labeled undocumented, and it's constantly not fair,'' said Maingrette, 27, who emigrated when she was 2 years old and is enrolled in a program known as Temporary Protected Status, which the Trump administration spent four years trying to whittle down. "I'm hoping to stop being in fear, a fear I've been living with since I was aware of my status when I was 8 years old."
As Joe Biden and Kamala Harris stepped into power on Wednesday, Nasser, Brito, and Maingrette were among hundreds of thousands of immigrants without legal status across the country feeling newly optimistic for reforms that could give them a path to citizenship and reunify families.
This week, they received encouraging news. Biden said he would send a sweeping immigration bill to Congress on his first day in office, including an eight-year path to citizenship for an estimated 11 million people living in the U.S. without legal status. That would be quicker than what was proposed in 2013, when a bipartisan group of U.S. senators proposed that immigrants wait 10 years or more to apply for permanent residency and citizenship.
It would also be a 180-degree turn after four years of a Trump administration that focused on restricting legal and illegal immigration — and rhetoric that often painted migrants as invaders and criminals.
The bill would provide a faster path to permanent legal status to immigrants brought to the country as children, the group known as "Dreamers," as well as those with Temporary Protected Status. TPS allows citizens from 10 designated countries to stay and work in the United States temporarily while their countries deal with natural disasters, armed conflict or other catastrophes. In some cases, those protections have been extended for decades, allowing immigrants to build lives in the U.S.
Biden also promised a spate of executive actions to swiftly reverse other Trump policies, including his ban on immigrants arriving from certain Muslim-majority countries. He has promised to jettison Trump's plan to exclude non-citizens from the Census count.
It's a mirror-image contrast to Trump's start. The Republican immediately ordered stepped-up immigration enforcement. He signed an executive order imposing what critics called a "Muslim ban," a policy eventually upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court.
Biden's immigration bill will likely face challenges from Republicans in Congress, where Democrats hold only a bare majority. The legislation will set aside funds for increased border security with new screening technologies, as well as aid to Central America.
Ira Mehlman, a spokesman for the Federation for American Immigration Reform, a Washington group that advocates for tougher immigration controls, called the bill a "disaster" for the American people that will spark a crisis at the border.
"You are already seeing the caravans of immigrants forming. They say they are coming,'' Mehlman said. "Biden himself acknowledged before Christmas that we don't need 2 million people at our border, and he was right. But the bill that he is floating out there seems to indicate that is where they are going to go."
By providing "amnesty" for immigrants in the U.S. illegally, Mehlman said, the bill would create more competition for American workers at a time when they're already struggling with massive unemployment during the coronavirus pandemic.
Nonetheless, undocumented immigrants and their advocates say they're looking forward to changes to help people already in the U.S.
Reining in detentions
Sister Mary Antonelle Chunka, a Felician nun who lives in Lodi and whose ministry includes visiting immigration detainees at the Elizabeth Detention Center, said she would like to see the new administration address the needs of detainees facing immigration violations and possible deportation. She said she knows of families separated for months and years due to detentions.
Joyce Phipps, an attorney and director of Casa de Esperanza in Bound Brook, a nonprofit that represents clients in immigration court, said she hopes Biden's pick for U.S. attorney general, Merrick Garland, will speed up federal immigration courts.
There are nearly 1.3 million pending deportation cases in those courts — nearly 2½ times the level when Trump assumed office four years ago, according to figures released this week by the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse, a research center at Syracuse University.
"We have backlogged cases of people who are married to U.S. citizens who can't receive the simplest thing to move their case,'' Phipps said. "It's something that needs to be looked at."
Biden said his legislation will include expanded training for immigration judges as well as technology upgrades for the courts. Judges would get discretion to review cases and grant relief to "deserving individuals,'' according to a fact sheet distributed by the new administration.
Nasser, the Sayreville woman from Kenya, said what upset her the most during Trump's tenure was the separation of children from parents at the southern border in 2018. The administration's "zero-tolerance" policy led to the removal of thousands of children from parents who were criminally prosecuted for crossing the border illegally.
Hundreds of those children still remain apart from their parents. Biden has promised to create a task force charged with reuniting the families.
Nasser, 36, said the pain of those family breakups hit her personally. Her oldest son, Justin Jamal, is still in Kenya. She's been unable to visit him while she works to legalize her status.
"Seeing other women and other families going through the same on the TV, and crying, that was not a good situation," she said. "That's why I was not in for Trump."
She petitioned for her son to join her in the U.S. last year, after she was able to obtain legal residency for herself. But the pandemic has delayed processing, she said, and she doesn't know when her son will be able to join her in New Jersey. She hopes the new administration can speed up the effort.
"We talk every day, and sometimes I cry at night because I really want him to be here with me, so it's very tough,'' Nasser said.
Fate of the Dreamers
Brito, a mother of two young daughters, is currently shielded from deportation through the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, known as DACA. The program prevents deportation of undocumented immigrants brought to the country as children. Those who pass background checks can obtain a Social Security number and work permits, though they must be renewed every two years.
The program was launched under President Barack Obama. Trump suspended it after he took office. Several lawsuits followed, culminating in a decision last year by the Supreme Court that allowed DACA to continue but left its future uncertain.
Brito, 27, said she doesn't have high hopes for a quick solution, but she's grateful that Biden is talking about immigration reform in positive terms.
"We hope to see some difference, not only in our lives, but also for my parents, who don't have status,'' said Brito, whose father moved to the United States more than 20 years ago.
Changing the 'narrative'
Maingrette left Haiti in 1995 with her family. After her homeland was hit with a 7.0-magnitude earthquake in 2010, TPS was offered to Haitian immigrants in the U.S. Maingrette applied when she was 17, obtaining a work permit and Social Security number that allowed her to get a job and a driver's license.
"I was able to put myself through school, and without it, I don't know what I would have been able to do'' said Maingrette, who graduated from Rutgers in 2019. "Now my next goal is to start medical school."
She works as a unit clerk and a medical scribe at St. Barnabas Medical Center in Livingston. Though she couldn't vote in November, she said she urged others to back Biden. That was only partially about immigration: Trump's handling of the pandemic also has been devastating, she said.
"Working at the hospital, I saw it firsthand, everything people had to go through," Maingrette said. "You will forever be traumatized because of the coronavirus.''
She said she's also hopeful that there will be an end to the immigrant-bashing she's heard for the last four years.
"That whole narrative is false. We work just as hard, or even harder, because we know what is at stake for us, and we know we have to send money back to our families,'' she said. "It's sad just the way some people have portrayed us."
Monsy Alvarado is an immigration reporter for NorthJersey.com. To get unlimited access to the latest news about one of the hottest issues in our state and country, please subscribe or activate your digital account today.