Maria, a 19-year-old college sophomore from Orlando, Florida, was just 10-months-old when her parents brought her to the U.S. from Caracas, Venezuela, in search of better job opportunities.
After living in America for 14 years without legal status, Maria became a recipient of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, or DACA, in 2016. The Obama-era program allows certain immigrants brought to the country illegally as children to work in the U.S. and be exempt from deportation. However, it did not confer legal status on recipients.
“America is literally the only country I’ve ever known,” said Maria, who has asked that her last name be withheld in order to protect her and her family's identity because they are undocumented and fearful of immigration officials. “I felt secure in this country because I had a work permit and a social security number.”
But in 2017, President Donald Trump ended DACA, leaving the lives of 800,000 young people in limbo. Over the next four years, Maria said she increasingly felt “out of the box.”
“Whenever I'm in public, or in a white area, particularly, I feel like all are eyes on me,” she told NBC in a phone interview. “Just because of how he views us, and that makes all of his supporters view us the same, as illegal, un-American.”
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Aside from her personal unease, Maria feared more for her parents. Over the years, their original visas expired, as did their driver’s licenses, which made daily commutes to work risky.
In her college application essays, Maria wrote, “Most Americans or people who are legal don’t have the fear of being stripped away from their parents at any moment at any given time.” She worried that if her dad got stopped, “I wouldn’t know because I don’t think they’d call us. Every day, I’m just hoping and praying that he gets home.”
On his first day in office, President Joe Biden signed a memorandum reinstating DACA, but permanent legal status and a path to citizenship would require congressional approval.
The new president has proposed a sweeping immigration bill that promises to grant some 11 million undocumented immigrants in the country legal status and a pathway to citizenship. The prospect of immigration reform has left Maria and her parents overjoyed and hopeful for a “guaranteed future” in the U.S.
The proposed legislation would put most undocumented immigrants on an 8-year track to obtain U.S. citizenship, according to a White House fact sheet detailing the bill. DACA recipients, those with temporary protected status and farm workers would be immediately eligible for green cards, with the ability to apply for citizenship after three years. The policy would only apply to applicants who arrived in the U.S. before Jan. 1, 2021.
The proposal would also let eligible family members wait in the United States for green cards by granting temporary status until their petitions are processed.
Ali Noorani, Executive Director of the National Immigration Forum, said that Biden has set himself apart from Obama by “putting a proposal on the table in a very public way.”
“For President Biden to say on day one that this was a legislative priority is really significant,” he said. Besides the promise of a pathway to citizenship, Noorani also highlighted several points in the proposal which reflect Biden is taking a “smart” approach toward immigration.
“One is the regional, if not global, approach to immigration policy,” he said, referring to Biden’s plan to invest $4 billion for a 4-year plan in Central America to decrease corruption, violence and poverty. This comes at a time when a caravan of Honduras immigrants heading for the U.S. was forced back by the Guatemalan border security. “I think the root-cause approach to migration is very important.”
Another element in Biden’s proposed immigration reform is to prioritize smart border controls, which constitutes using technology to identify illicit activities at ports of entry and make processing asylum seekers more efficient. “The prioritization of ports of entry, actually thinking through what is a smart approach to border enforcement is really quite important and long overdue,” Noorani said.
However, some argue that the deployment of technology, including aerial drones, infrared cameras, motion sensors, and facial recognition — a “virtual border” — that is based on advanced surveillance poses an even greater concern than Trump’s border wall.
Hope for Migrant Farmworkers
Bruce Goldstein, president of the advocacy group Farmworker Justice, estimates that roughly 1.3 million farmworkers would benefit from the bill. Around 65% to 70% of the total number of farmworkers in the U.S. are undocumented. To become eligible for legal status, they would have to have worked for at least 100 days in the U.S. for four of the last five years, and pass criminal background checks. Those who qualify would then be able to apply for citizenship three years after receiving a green card.
“The pandemic has had a disproportionate impact on farm workers who have been designated as essential workers,” he said. “It’s long past the time for our immigration system to recognize their contributions to our economy by granting them access to immigration status.”
In 2019, the Senate blocked a bipartisan House bill, the Farm Workforce Modernization Act, which sought to grant legal status to undocumented immigrants working in agriculture and reform the H-2A visa category for agricultural workers so that employers could bring in new foreign labor.
“Both guest workers as well as our permanent workforce are critical to American food production,” Chuck Conner, head of the National Council of Farmer Cooperatives said. “It's our hope that we can work with the Biden administration to successfully get it through both bodies this time.”
Enrique Balcazar, a 28-year-old former dairy farm worker in Vermont, came to the U.S. when he was 17 years old and labored 12 to 15 hours a day, seven days a week, making less than $5 an hour. He became an activist at Migrant Justice, a Burlington-based group that works to defend farmworkers’ rights, and has been on the frontlines of the movement for years. He and two other Latino activists recently won a high-profile lawsuit against Immigration and Customs Enforcement after the agency tried to deport them in 2017. The suit accused ICE of targeting migrant activists with retaliatory arrests “for exercising First Amendment rights.” With Biden’s bill, he would be able to get legal status and citizenship afterwards.
“The proposed immigration reform includes a lot of good things. But if a reform is passed, it has to be inclusive and we can’t leave people out,” Balcazar told NBC. “It’s a concern we have that the bill could get watered down as it advances.”
Balcazar said Migrant Justice has also been paying close attention to the development of a 2019 bill, the New Way Forward Act, that could decriminalize immigration and disrupt the prison-to-deportation pipeline. Encouraged by Biden’s immigration plan, a coalition of community groups reintroduced the bill in Congress on Jan. 26.
Despite the pro-immigration stance Biden has shown, immigration activists are treating it with caution.
In a sign of the uphill battle his proposals may face, a 100-day moratorium on deportations that Biden signed on Jan. 20 day was blocked days later by a federal judge after Texas sued to stop its enforcement.
Biden's bill is expected to face strong opposition in a divided Congress. Republican Sen. Tom Cotton from Arkansas tweeted that Biden’s plan “would hurt American workers” and “put Americans out of work.” Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., called the bill a “blanket amnesty,” during a Fox News interview, while Iowa Republican Sen. Charles E. Grassley said in a statement it "encourages further violations of our immigration laws.”
Still, many remain hopeful.
When Jennifer Lopez sang at the inauguration and said, in Spanish, “liberty and justice for all,” tears streamed down Maria’s cheek.
“I just felt like it was such a triumphant moment where it was like, we get representation,” she said. “We’re really just hoping for him to keep his words and have it go through and be effective.”
Hoping to become an industrial psychologist, Maria wants to design work spaces that make employees feel comfortable and safe. “I feel like my future is a bit more secured,” she said.