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For immigrants and advocates in Chicago, ‘work is only beginning’ as they await new Biden administration

President-elect Joe Biden has signaled he will reinstate the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, but many immigrants and advocates say more work is needed to halt deportations and provide more rights for immigrants.

Yearim Choi, 23, a Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals recipient, poses for a picture in Pilsen, Saturday afternoon, Nov. 14, 2020.
Yearim Choi, 23, a Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals recipient, said it was a “sigh of relief” when she learned Joe Biden was projected to win the 2020 election.
Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

Yearim Choi felt anxious and worried during the past four years of uncertainty for immigrants under President Donald Trump’s administration.

She hesitated to tell anyone she was among the thousands of young immigrants who were part of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program until she traveled to Washington, D.C., when the U.S. Supreme Court heard arguments in a case about the program.

“I saw so many strong DACA recipients that kind of took (this) on as an identity,” Choi said. “The community really helped me identify with that part of myself and accept it and be who I am regardless.”

Choi, 23, of Pilsen, felt a sigh of relief when President-elect Joe Biden was declared the winner, and she thought of the DACA community that has spent four years speaking out for immigrants.

“There’s a lot more work to do, and we can get started,” Choi said.

Yearim Choi, 23, of Pilsen, and other Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals recipients , poses for a picture in Pilsen, Saturday afternoon, Nov. 14, 2020. It was a “sigh of relief” when she learned that Joe Biden is the projected winner of the 2020 election, but it is also an “uphill battle,” she said.
Yearim Choi, 23, of Pilsen, and other Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals recipients could regain legal protections when President-elect Joe Biden takes office in January.
Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

On his first day in office, Biden is expected to sign an executive order to reinstate legal protections the Trump administration has tried to end for so-called Dreamers like Choi, incoming Chief of Staff Ron Klain recently said on NBC’s “Meet the Press.”

Still, many immigration advocates in Chicago say they will continue to push the next administration to protect immigrants, prioritizing ending family separations at the border and halting all deportations.

“Our work is only beginning,” said Fred Tsao, senior policy counsel for Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights. “Even though President-elect Biden has made statements and promises, we need to make sure those promises are kept.”

Once Biden is in office, immigration policies done through Trump’s executive orders such as the travel ban placed on a cluster of predominantly Muslim countries or proclamations could be more easily reversed, Tsao said.

Other changes that went through a regulatory process — like the controversial public charge rule that would withhold green cards from immigrants who receive public benefits — will need to go through a similar process again to change, he said.

And immigration advocates are bracing for last-minute changes to immigration policy that could still happen in the last two months of the Trump administration. Days after the election results were announced, the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services announced immigrants who apply for citizenship after Dec. 1 will have to take a new test.

The test is expected to have more questions and be more difficult, Tsao said. Advocates are also watching for changes to the asylum process following a period of public comment earlier this year.

In October, the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement moved forward with expedited removals, which would allow agents to speed up deportations of immigrants who have been in the U.S. for less than two years and don’t have proper documentation to be in the country, according to the agency’s website.

Miguel Lopez, membership organizer for Organized Communities Against Deportations, said the group has kept tabs on deportation raids in other states. They are staying in touch with rapid response networks in Chicago, which have expanded during the Trump era. The networks support immigrants in the area and alert each other when immigration agents are spotted.

“This is not a time to put our guard down,” Lopez said. “We want to be and continue to be in solidarity with other movements — not just about Trump — different policies that affect Black and Brown communities in Chicago.”

Protesters hold up signs during a protest outside the Immigration and Customs Enforcement office at 101 W. Ida B. Wells Dr at 101 W. Ida B. Wells Dr in South Loop, Tuesday, Aug. 4, 2020.
Protesters outside the Immigration and Customs Enforcement office at 101 W. Ida B. Wells Drive in South Loop.
Anthony Vazquez/Sun-Times file

A week before Election Day, Trump’s administration capped the number of refugees who will be allowed into the country at 15,000 for fiscal year 2021. In contrast, former President Barack Obama issued a memorandum in 2016 allowing for 110,000 refugees to be settled in the U.S. for fiscal year 2017.

Many in the refugee community are hopeful Biden will keep his campaign promise of allowing more refugees into the country, which he could do with a presidential determination.

But it could take years to rebuild programs that have received less government funding as the number of refugees allowed into the country declined, said Jims Porter, communication and advocacy manager for Chicago-based RefugeeOne, a resettlement agency.

Emma Yaaka, 27, would like more resources allocated for refugees so they can navigate going to school, securing housing and accessing health care. Yaaka, a refugee from Uganda who works with Heartland Alliance, spent the days after Election Day fielding messages from other refugees asking what was going on with the presidential race.

“I had a lot of fear because I come from Africa; most of our leaders don’t respect people’s election,” Yaaka said. “I’m so thankful that the fear that I had before, it went away. I was so scared of what would be next, what would happen.”

Emma Yaaka, 27, is a refugee from Uganda and would like president-elect Joe Biden to allocate more resources to refugees so they could seek out better housing, education and health care.
Emma Yaaka, 27, is a refugee from Uganda and would like President-elect Joe Biden to allocate more resources to refugees so they could find better housing, education and health care.
Provided

Ata Allua, a Rohingyan refugee who was stateless, found it challenging to get a job when he arrived to the U.S. Like Yaaka, he would like resources devoted to helping refugees complete vocational training programs.

Abdul Samad, who also is a Rohingyan refugee, became a citizen and was able to vote on Election Day for the first time. While his father is in the U.S., his mother and siblings are still in Malaysia. Samad, 27, who also works for Heartland Alliance, voted for politicians who seemed more likely to help refugees.

“I hope that it’s going to be more easier for my family to reunite again in Chicago and other families,” Samad said.

Elvia Malagón’s reporting on social justice and income inequality is made possible by a grant from The Chicago Community Trust.