Maryland immigrants await Biden moves on immigration policy promises

Fermin Lozano, Andrew Lozano-Hernandez, Yoslin Amaya Hernandez, and James Lozano-Hernandez pose for a family picture. (Courtesy Yoslin Amaya Hernandez)

Yoslin Amaya Hernandez, a Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) recipient, is hesitant to celebrate President-elect Joe Biden’s victory just yet.

She says she is uncertain whether he will live up to the promises he’s made on immigration policy.

Biden campaigned to reverse policies enacted under President Donald Trump’s administration.

Now, with only a little over a month to the inauguration, Amaya Hernandez and many of the nearly 1 million immigrants like her in Maryland, along with supporters and critics, await the new administration to see whether substantial policy changes will be delivered.

“We’re a very vulnerable community,” Amaya Hernandez, 23, of Montgomery County, Maryland, said. “If he is promising things for the community and these things don’t happen…we’re back to the uncertainty.”

When Amaya Hernandez was eight years old, she and her mother and younger sister left El Salvador and crossed the Mexican border to enter the United States. They were caught and an immigration case was opened. In 2007, a judge ordered a voluntary departure, but the family stayed, so they were ordered deported.

DACA allowed Amaya Hernandez and thousands of other undocumented youths to remain in the country and work for temporary renewal periods.

Due to the program, Amaya Hernandez has been able to enroll at the University of Maryland — where she is currently a senior majoring in government and politics — and take on several jobs, often at once, to provide for her two kids, ages 3 and 5.

While she is applying for permanent residency because her husband is a U.S. citizen, she fears being deported before obtaining legal status and potentially being prohibited from re-entering the country for 10 years.

“At any given moment, I could be gone,” she said. “My kids have to stay here and they have to be without their mother for who knows how long.”

Her life and those of many people in Maryland without permanent legal status remains in limbo.

Maryland has about 275,000 undocumented immigrants, who as of 2018 made up nearly 30% of the state’s large immigrant population, according to the American Immigration Council.

Undocumented immigration has been strictly scrutinized by the Trump administration, which included terminating DACA on Sept. 5, 2017 — the very day Amaya Hernandez’s sister turned 15 and would have been eligible to apply but could no longer do so.

While Biden has promised to reinstate DACA, a Dec. 4 court ruling ordered the Department of Homeland Security to begin accepting new DACA applications and restore the two-year renewal period that the current administration shortened to just one year.

Biden, meanwhile, also has committed to revising “temporary protected status” (TPS) designations, which prevents people from being returned to certain countries deemed unsafe.

On Sept. 14, the Trump administration terminated TPS designations. Recently, they were extended for some citizens of El Salvador, Haiti, Nicaragua, Sudan, Honduras and Nepal until at least October 2021.

Biden has also committed to revamping deportation, detention and enforcement policies. Proposed changes include creation of a task force to find parents of 545 migrant children who were separated at the border, a 100-day freeze on deportations and the reversal of the Migrant Protection Protocols, under which families with children are sent to Mexico to await their U.S. asylum cases.

“The Biden transition team has already kind of signaled that they want to immediately roll back many of the stringent asylum policies that the Trump administration put in through executive order,” said Mike Amezcua, assistant professor of history at Georgetown University.

“There’s a lot of a lot of promises being made right now. And hopefully, Biden will deliver on many of them,” he added.

Jessica Vaughan, director of policy studies at the Center of Immigration Studies, a think tank that advocates lower immigration rates, believes rolling back asylum and deportation policies will lead to conflict within the Biden administration and a potential border crisis.

“The president-elect has made no secret of his interest in enacting a massive amnesty for almost everyone who’s now in the country illegally,” she continued. “The perception around the world is that Biden is going to loosen the rules so they might as well start coming down.”

Biden has also made promises to legal immigrants, which includes increasing the overall number of temporary, work-based visas — a move that would impact immigrants from, among other places, India, China and the Philippines, who make up a large portion of Maryland’s immigrants.

In June, the Trump administration halted the issuance of work-based visas and green cards until the end of the year.

According to the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), citizens from India receive almost 75% of H1-B visas despite being just 6% of the state’s immigrants, according to data from the American Immigration Council. The visa is issued to highly-skilled workers in “speciality occupations,” such as those in the tech industry, and is the most popular of 22 work-based visas.

Chinese workers — 5% of the state’s immigrants — receive nearly 12% of H1-B visa, while Filipinos – 4% of Maryland immigrants – get under 1%.

“We need to bring in the talent, we should have the ability to bring the talent, not to replace Americans but to supplement us or to give us the brain power that is needed to stay ahead of countries like China and others coming faster and harder,” said Sanjay Puri, chairman at the U.S. India Political Action Committee, a bipartisan organization representing Indian-Americans.

Biden has promised to repeal Trump’s travel ban — one of Trump’s first controversial immigration moves in 2017 that was extended early this year.

The ban particularly affects Nigerian immigrants in Maryland, the state’s fourth-largest immigrant group.

The travel ban barred visas to citizens of predominantly-Muslim and African countries, including Iran, Libya, Somalia, Syria, Yemen, Venezuela and North Korea. Residents of Nigeria, Myanmar, Eritrea, Kyrgyzstan, Sudan and Tanzania were only allowed visitor visas to prevent them from settling permanently in the United States.

In a symbolic signal of planned policy shifts, Biden nominated Alejandro Mayorkas as head of the Department of Homeland Security. If confirmed, Mayorkas would be the first immigrant to lead the agency.

Yet Georgetown’s Amezcua is unsure if this pick sends the best message to immigrants.

“In the appointment of Mayorkas, there is really a feeling that Biden and the Biden team right now is not really meeting the moment when they appoint somebody with what I would argue is kind of like a tarnished record,” he said.

Mayorkas served as deputy secretary of homeland security and director of USCIS under President Barack Obama, who enacted the DACA program but was also dubbed “deporter-in-chief” by critics because removals increased significantly in comparison to previous administrations (although apprehensions and overall deportations decreased).

But Puri views Mayorkas’s background and experience as positives.

“DHS is a huge, huge part of our government, a huge bureaucracy. We need somebody who’s got really hands-on experience,” he said.

Puri also sees immigration reform as crucial, even if it remains a controversial and complex issue.

“If we can have a comprehensive reform, it’s really going to be good for the country,” Puri said. “It’s going to be healing, bringing out the people who are in the shadows, because everybody knows they are here and a key part of our country.”

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