In the eyes of Betty Mejía, President Joe Biden and former President Trump are one and the same: Both have deported her. In the last year Mejía, who is from Honduras, has tried five times to cross into the United States illegally with her son and her daughter, only to be detained and deported back to Mexico each time. For her, and many other immigrants like her, nothing at the border has changed between administrations.
“In June  I tried to cross three times because I was told that people were getting across, then I got there, and nothing,” a tearful Mejía told an Univision reporter in Roma, Texas, shortly after attempting to cross the border a sixth time. “Two months ago, I tried again and failed. Then I tried one month ago, and, again, I was deported. They just won’t let me in.”
In a video, Mejía’s young daughter’s feet are muddy, her shoes lost during the dangerous trip across the Rio Grande in a small inflatable raft.
One of the most unfair and arbitrary deportation policies employed by the Trump administration, known as Title 42, is still being applied today along the southern border. Invoked as a health measure to prevent the novel coronavirus from spreading in holding facilities, the order allows border agents to turn away migrants without allowing them a chance to apply for asylum. According to reporting in The New York Times, almost 550,000 people have been expelled by the Department of Homeland Security in this fiscal year. It’s time for President Biden to put an end to this cruel legacy.
Over 168 million people, or 63 percent of the adult population of the United States, have now received at least one dose of a Covid-19 vaccine. President Biden’s stated goal is to have 70 percent of the adult population vaccinated by July 4. This means that the health emergency that might have justified Trump’s hardline deportation policies is over.
Enforcement of Title 42 rules should end immediately, and border crossings between the United States and Mexico should return to their normal status. Normalization could be achieved even more quickly if the United States were to donate millions of vaccines to Mexican border communities.
Trump’s immigration policies were defined by their cruelty; now President Biden has a moral obligation to at least listen to what immigrants like Betty Mejía have to say when they arrive at the border. Biden’s $4 billion investment plan for Central America, designed to combat northbound migration at its roots, will require several years before results can be seen. In the meantime, we urgently need a humane system in place to deal with Central Americans who are fleeing conditions of extreme poverty, violence and gang intimidation. This is the responsibility of the United States, both as a superpower and as the undisputed economic leader in the Americas.
And every bit as urgently, we must legalize the residential status of millions of undocumented Americans, some of whom have been living in the United States for decades. This is a promise that has gone unfulfilled since amnesty was granted under the Reagan administration in 1986, when the Immigration Reform and Control Act legalized the status of most immigrants who had arrived here before 1982. But the excuse for doing nothing is always the same: Republicans say they are unwilling to consider any legalization proposal until the southern border is secure. Yet entirely sealing a shared border that is more than 1,900 miles long and where the U.S. Border Patrol detained more than 178,000 people attempting illegal entry in April alone is almost impossible. Naturally and historically, the border is porous.
Asked recently why no real progress had been made in bipartisan talks on immigration, Senator Richard J. Durbin of Illinois, the No. 2 Senate Democrat, replied simply: “The southern border.” And that is not changing any time soon. Republicans are very likely to reframe the debate over the border — and the thousands of refugees and unaccompanied children crossing it — in their bid to retake control of the U.S. Congress in the 2022 midterm elections. This means that President Biden and the Democrats are left with but one option on immigration reform: Do it now, without bipartisan support. Or it will never happen.
I’m certain that Biden wants to solve this problem, and I’m sure that if Congress were to send him an immigration bill legalizing the presence of more than 10 million undocumented Americans, he would sign it immediately. But time isn’t on his side. And waiting can be risky.
Twenty years ago, immigration talks between former President George W. Bush and Vicente Fox, then the president of Mexico, went on for too long, and after the attacks of Sept. 11, any hope of reaching an agreement was shattered. Former President Barack Obama failed to introduce his immigration reform proposal in 2009, when his party controlled both chambers of Congress and the country was facing a severe financial crisis; later, he didn’t have enough votes to pass it. President Biden shouldn’t take these kinds of risks. He should hurry.
To show that the issue is important to him, Biden recently gathered a group of “Dreamers” at the White House. The meeting was extraordinary in and of itself. These young people were brought into the United States by their parents illegally, and are exempted from deportation through the Deferred Action on Childhood Arrivals program. A meeting like that during the Trump era would have been unthinkable.
María Praeli, 28, was 5 years old when she was brought to the United States from Peru. The United States “is my home,” she told me. “Feeling so American, having so many memories in this country, and yet not knowing if I will be able to make a future for myself here is really hard. I just hope this is the year something happens.”
Karen Reyes, who was born in Mexico and only 2 when she was brought to the United States, also met with Biden. “The president said this is very important for him, but what we need now are actions,” she said.
Yes, actions are needed. And a sense of urgency.
One of Biden’s first acts upon taking office was sending a comprehensive immigration proposal, to be called the U.S. Citizenship Act of 2021, to Congress. And according to a Quinnipiac University poll published in February, most Americans support a pathway to citizenship for the undocumented. But this proposal and other similar bills remain stuck on Capitol Hill.
Democrats still lack the votes to overturn the current Senate rules, which effectively require proponents of a bill to muster a 60-vote supermajority to advance it. The only way out is to end the minority party’s power to stall legislation — the filibuster — and pass very concrete laws for the benefit of Dreamers and migrant farmworkers through a procedural budget shortcut called reconciliation. Both options are politically aggressive and would face huge Republican opposition. But it’s about time we made radical decisions to protect the lives of millions of immigrants like María and Karen.
President Biden, the clock is ticking. Please don’t wait much longer. We can’t afford to repeat the mistakes of the past.