President Biden’s Immigration Policy
(THE DAVINCI - CHARLOTTESVILLE) - On February 18, 2021, President Joe Biden introduced The U.S. Citizenship Act of 2021, acting on his commitment to modernizing our current immigration system. This act prioritizes keeping immigrant families together along with changing xenophobic terminology in our current national legislation. This potential change is a direct product of President Biden’s views and promises made on the campaign trail during the 2020 election. In the official statement on his campaign website, Biden emphasizes the importance of immigration to the identity of the United States as a country. He promised that “Under a Biden Administration, we will never turn our backs on who we are or that which makes us uniquely and proudly American. The United States deserves an immigration policy that reflects our highest values as a nation,”(Biden, 2020).
In the first few pages of this act, President Biden addresses the outdated terminology used to describe undocumented immigrants coming new into this country. This term originated from an English treatise penned by William Blackstone, which derived the term alien from the Latin term alienus, meaning “foreigner” or “outsider”. The term was soon adopted by George Washington in the Naturalization Act of 1790. Since the founding of our country, immigrants have been plagued with xenophobia and racism from citizens of the United States. In 1882, Congress passed the Chinese Exclusion Act, which imposed a 10-year halt on Chinese labor migration in response to U.S. residents putting blame on Chinese immigrants for declining wages and rising unemployment. Later on, in 1924, a quota system was introduced to the country, which stated that no nationality can exceed what its population was in the United States before 1890. This quota gave a severe preference to Northern and Western European immigrants. The inequitable quota was abolished by President Lyndon B. Johnson in 1965, but in place of it, the administration placed immigration restrictions on countries in the Western Hemisphere, which only contributed to illegal immigration from Central and South America.
So how does this relate to the usage of the term “alien” in our modern legislation? Alien, specifically “illegal alien”, has been increasingly used as a derogatory term in the past few decades. A study done by Professor Edwin F. Ackerman of Syracuse University shows that the use of “alien” in news articles from The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, and The Chicago Tribune has seen a dramatic increase in the past thirty years. The term is often used by politicians in a derogatory way, as seen in a statement by Senator Ted Cruz, “[San Francisco］ invites illegal aliens, including criminal illegal aliens.” By eliminating the use of this outdated and often derogatory term in U.S. legislation, the country takes active steps in changing the national discourse. The U.S. Citizenship Act of 2021 directly addresses the issue of language in the first few pages. It strikes all variations of “alien” and “alienage” and replaces them with “noncitizen” and “noncitizenship”. This is only the first step in shifting the way we as a country refer to and treat immigrants.
Keeping immigrant families together is another provision under this new act. According to the Washington Post, this act aims to provide an eight-year path to citizenship for over 11 million people. Without this legislation, families attempting to immigrate to this country would face the possibility of separation through detention and deportation. This change comes after former President Trump’s unchanging “zero tolerance” policy, which separated nearly 5,000 children from their families during his time in office. Another way that this act attempts to prevent families from being separated is by allowing immigrants with families already in the U.S. to petition for family sponsorship, allowing them to stay with family temporarily while waiting for their green card.
Outside of this act, President Biden used an executive order to appoint a family reunification task force with the hope of reuniting families separated under former President Trump’s presidency. This task force is very similar in many ways to the reunification task force under the Freedmen's Bureau, whose main goal was to bring together African American families who were separated by the pre-Civil War slave trade. This executive order also provides immigrant families access to mental health services and possibly permanent legal residency for those who have not yet been reunited.
There are many more changes that need to be made in our current immigration policy to fully recover from the turn our stance on immigration has taken in the past four years, but the actions the Biden administration is taking to make amends are steps in the right direction. Now that changes have been made in the national legislation, these provisions must be enforced in order to make real change in the country. The actions taking in the upcoming four years will only tell if this new approach to immigration policy will work.