Biden’s punt to Congress on immigration is wearing thin with advocates

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Immigration advocates are growing weary of the Biden administration’s measured use of executive power to grant work papers to immigrants.

Over three years, Team Biden has systematically drawn back the Trump administration’s efforts to shrink programs such as Temporary Protected Status (TPS), but at a deliberate pace that’s irked immigrant communities.

Further fueling frustration is the administration’s fallback position that immigration woes are the result of congressional inaction.

“So this line about waiting for Congress — we cannot wait. That ship has sailed. The only relief that can be offered to the immigrant community now is through the administration,” said Jossie Flor Sapunar, national communications director for advocacy group CASA.

Comprehensive immigration reform has evaded Congress for decades, and it remains one of the most divisive issues in U.S. politics.

As the Biden administration’s repeated finger-pointing at Congress gnaws at advocates, Democrats warn of the dangers of a divided immigrant advocacy community.

“I think everybody has skin in the game. I think there’s a level of responsibility from Congress, from the executive, from localities, from states,” said Rep. Adriano Espaillat (D-N.Y.), who’s often butted heads with his party over immigration.

“It’s not one person [who’s] fully responsible. I think we all have to work together on this. We can’t go at each other because this is not gonna be resolved if we do it that way.”

Yet the administration has a number of unused arrows in its quiver.

Groups such as CASA, which boasts more than 100,000 members across 46 states, say that TPS is the most powerful tool in the president’s executive arsenal.

TPS is designed to protect nationals of a country in crisis from forcible repatriation. Nationals of a designated country who are present in the United States are allowed to live and work legally while the designation is active.

A coalition led by CASA, SEIU, Alianza Americas and Adhikaar of more than 350 entities ranging from civil rights groups to immigrant advocates and major labor unions on Monday called on Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas to redesignate El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua and Nepal for TPS.

The groups separately asked Mayorkas to also redesignate Guatemala and Venezuela.

A redesignation would massively expand the number of people covered by the program.

“A decision to redesignate TPS for these countries would of course be life-changing for those who have made their lives here,” the groups wrote.

“In addition, a wealth of research demonstrates the benefits to all workers and the economy of granting legal status to persons who already live and work in the U.S. and specifically documents the huge economic contributions of persons who have or would be eligible for TPS.”

When a designation is due to expire, the Homeland Security secretary can either issue a renewal, extending TPS protections for existing beneficiaries, or a redesignation, extending those protections to all nationals of the designated country who are physically present in the United States.

El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua and Nepal, known collectively as the Ramos countries after a TPS-related lawsuit against the Trump administration, had their TPS designations renewed by the Biden administration in June.

The Trump administration had attempted to terminate TPS designations for those countries but was stymied by the courts in the Ramos case.

Upon Biden’s election, advocates expected the Department of Justice to swiftly withdraw from that lawsuit and the Department of Homeland Security to rescind Trump’s terminations.

Those rescissions came in June, paired with the renewals.

But they also came with a bundle of confusing red tape, where Ramos TPS holders were given 60 days to renew their individual status, though the country designations were extended to 2025.

On Friday, advocates scored a major win when the Biden administration extended the registration period for Ramos countries from 60 days to 18 months, after pressure from civil rights organizations and the Congressional Hispanic Caucus.

But those wins seem to come at a snail’s pace, and advocates are uneasy that the Biden administration has not shown the same zeal for immigrant relief that the Trump administration showed for cracking down.

For instance, advocates on the outside routinely present the Biden administration with ideas to get maximum mileage out of existing legislation, while the previous administration made it a priority to have restrictionist advocates in-house, actively looking for ways to deter or minimize immigration.

A coalition of 24 advocacy groups, including top Hispanic political, business and civil rights groups, called on Mayorkas and Attorney General Merrick Garland to make use of two relatively obscure immigration provisions to help mixed-status families get papers for their relatives.

“The undersigned organizations have long advocated removing the barriers immigrant families face because it is critical to creating a fair and just nation where everyone’s contributions are equally valued and appreciated,” the groups wrote in an Aug. 24 letter.

“Given the current challenges of advancing comprehensive immigration reform in this divided Congress, we firmly believe that there are administrative measures that can be taken in the interim to provide essential relief to our community.”

One proposal involves cutting down a backlog of visa or green card applications for people who are legally eligible but need to get a waiver for having accrued unlawful presence in the United States. The groups also asked for people in that situation to receive temporary work permits.

The other involves undocumented people who have been in the United States for more than 10 years, have family in the country, have “good moral character” and have not committed crimes, and whose departure would signify hardship for their families.

People in that group are eligible to apply for permanent residency but must first be facing removal in immigration court.

“Paradoxically, the very facts that could make certain long-time undocumented residents strong candidates for relief under cancellation of removal — typically that they are low enforcement priorities — often prevent them from accessing this powerful form of relief which requires that applicants first be in removal proceedings,” the groups wrote.

The Biden administration regularly fields proposals of the sort from advocates and Democrats in every level of government, as well as business, religious and civil rights institutions.

And even as patience grows thin, advocates admit what they’re asking of the Biden administration is only a small step toward their goal.

“So the reality is TPS is not the end game; the North Star is always citizenship,” Sapunar said.

“And yes, that is in the hands of Congress to do. But Congress failed. And again, this program is now the relief that the president can offer. That is the best we can do considering the political scenario. So no, we don’t want TPS for the long term. The goal is always citizenship for 11 million people.”

—Updated at 10:52 a.m.

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