President Biden Reverses Some of Trump’s Anti-Immigration Policies. Now What?
LAW’s Sarah Sherman-Stokes says the new policies are worth celebrating, but the hard work is just beginning
Last Wednesday evening Sarah Sherman-Stokes put her sons, ages five and seven, to bed, logged on to her computer to catch up on work, began scrolling through her Twitter feed—and the news of President Biden’s executive orders (Eos) revoking a number of Donald Trump’s anti-immigration policies, including the “Muslim ban”—and, as she would put it the next morning, she finally exhaled.
She tweeted: “Is this what it’s like to take a breath? (asking for myself).”
Sure, she already had criticisms of the immigration bill Biden was expected to send to Congress, but they were nothing like the ones she had of the immigration policies and actions under Trump.
As the associate director of the Immigrants’ Rights & Human Trafficking Program at BU School of Law, Sherman-Stokes has spent the last four years fighting for the right of her clients, many of them asylum-seeking refugees fleeing violence in Central America, to stay in this country. At the start of Trump’s term, when he enacted the ban on entry to the United States from several predominantly Muslim countries, Sherman-Stokes and a group of LAW students were among those who spent early mornings at Boston’s Logan International Airport, scrambling to help families that had been separated overnight by the President’s order.
Scrolling through Twitter long into the evening of the day Biden was inaugurated, Sherman-Stokes saw that he signed one executive (EO) order after another that had the potential to affect her clients and their families, as well as some of her LAW students, who were once undocumented and have family members who are still undocumented. The new orders halt construction of the border wall, strengthen protections for the undocumented young immigrants known as Dreamers, and revoke Trump’s illegal move to exclude undocumented immigrants from the US census.
“Under the Trump administration, my clients—and many of my students—heard themselves and their families demonized on TV and on the radio, and by the person in charge of the country where they’ve come for protection,” says Sherman-Stokes, an immigration attorney, LAW clinical associate professor of law, and 2020 winner of BU’s highest teaching honor, the Metcalf Cup and Prize. “They have seen a president who enables white supremacists and people who would like to do them harm. That’s a terrifying way to live, especially when you know that you could be picked up by ICE [Immigration and Customs Enforcement] on your way to work or at your house or in the backyard at a barbecue with your family. The kind of harm that that’s done is hard to overstate.”
On Wednesday Sherman-Stokes spoke by phone to one of those clients, a mother of five from Central America who was released in December from the Georgia detention center where she had been held after being picked up by ICE agents for a motor vehicle offense. “She said she and her kids had been watching the inaugural festivities all day. And she was just so hopeful.”
BU Today spoke with Sherman-Stokes about the impact of Biden’s nine first-day executive orders on immigration, the immigration bill he is expected to send to Congress, and the road ahead.
With Sarah Sherman Stokes
BU Today: How should we think about Biden’s actions on immigration so far?
Sarah Sherman Stokes: Some incredible things happened in his first 24 hours for our country on a number of fronts, including immigration. These executive orders, which will take effect almost immediately, are aimed largely at quickly undoing some of the most hated policies of the Trump administration, including the Muslim ban. In terms of a more strategic, comprehensive, long-term package, we’ve got this bill he’s going to file—and who knows what will happen with that? There’s some really good stuff in there, but, I don’t know, I’m trying to restore my faith in Congress.
What might be seen as potentially small potatoes, but what I think is also incredibly important with this administration, is the shift in rhetoric, and language, and being explicit about who we are as a country, and the ways in which we value noncitizens. You can see it in the language of the executive orders.
One of the orders that came out revises the civil immigration enforcement policies. Biden revoked the memo that Trump issued, which said that all noncitizens are a law enforcement priority. Biden is saying that not all undocumented immigrants are a law enforcement priority, and requiring that we set priorities that best serve the national interests.
4 years ago, @BU_Law students and I spent several days at the airport helping families devastated & separated by the #MuslimBan. today, @POTUS repealed it. here’s to all the organizers, activists, courageous families, and yes, a few lawyers, who made this possible. 🙌 pic.twitter.com/dhmB7woNnx— Sarah Sherman-Stokes (@sshermanstokes) January 21, 2021
There is this great language at the beginning of the order. This is the way it starts: Immigrants help strengthen America’s families, communities, businesses and workforce and economy, infusing the United States with creativity, energy, and ingenuity.
Of course, what doesn’t change with a new administration is that I still have several dozen clients, the majority of whom are in removal proceedings facing deportation. So for those of us that care about immigrants’ rights and immigrant communities, we have to stay vigilant. But I think it’s also important that we, especially those of us who have been fighting this for the last four years, take a moment of joy and celebration. And I think it’s really, really important that we recognize that this is a collective victory. Yes, lawyers play some role, but this is a collective victory for organizers and activists who have been in the trenches working tirelessly on these things for years. They’ve been holding hunger strikes in politicians’ offices. The Dreamers [DACA: Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals] followed Joe Biden on the campaign trail and got him to promise a 100-day moratorium on deportations. These were teenagers and young adults who dropped everything and organized and held sit-ins and followed candidates and asked hard questions. We owe them so, so much.
BU Today: And Biden made good on that campaign promise?
Yes, he just announced a 100-day moratorium on deportation. And as I mentioned earlier, he also issued an executive order ordering the Department of Homeland Security and the Attorney General to fortify DACA.
I’m so inspired by the Dreamers in particular, because though they got DACA, they were not satisfied by just getting protection for themselves. They knew that justice only comes when protection is for everyone. They’ve been unrelenting in their organizing and pushing politicians to do more for their families and their communities. And we’re seeing that pay off.
You don’t get this kind of progressive change without grassroots organizing and activism. It’s something that as a law professor and a teacher, I’m talking about a lot with my students. We play an important role as lawyers. And also we could stand to do more listening to organizers and activists who were there on the front lines of this fight. And when we take direction from them and stand in solidarity with them, we get these kinds of results.
BU Today: Can you talk about some of the other key actions on immigration Biden took—and their impact?
The halt to the construction of the border wall and the redirection of those funds is important both substantively and symbolically. The wall is a symbol of xenophobia and racism and exclusion. I will say, from what I’ve read in that EO, there is also language about stepping up surveillance and nonphysical barriers at different checkpoints, which does raise alarms for me. I am not in support of more enforcement. I’m an abolitionist.
Another really important executive order is revoking Trump’s illegal census order. Trump had called for the exclusion of undocumented immigrants when counting the census. Until the last couple of years, I don’t think I’d quite recognized the political importance of the census count; certainly anti-immigrant zealots did recognize it. Apportionment of [congressional] districts depends on the census. So when the Trump administration ordered that undocumented immigrants would be excluded from the census, it meant that states with more undocumented immigrants would get less representation. And those districts tend to vote Democratic. So that was a nakedly political move by the Trump administration.
Another important thing Biden did was to end new enrollments in the Migration Protection Protocols program, which has kept more than 70,000 asylum seekers stuck in squalid conditions in Mexico, waiting their turn to seek asylum in the United States. This is a positive step, but it’s not enough.
BU Today: So what happens to those 70,000 people now?
The next step is to safely admit them to the United States so they can claim asylum, which is their legal right. What we need to do now is to dispatch additional asylum officers to the border so we can safely and swiftly admit those asylum seekers.
in 2019, @BU_Law students, @jdahlstrom765, karen pita loor & I went to the #border to help #asylum seekers stuck in MX. today @POTUS suspended new enrollments in #MPP. thank you to @AlOtroLado_Org, organizers and so many others. now let them in! pic.twitter.com/Op8o7MVIc2— Sarah Sherman-Stokes (@sshermanstokes) January 21, 2021
Doctors Without Borders did a huge study of some of these border towns. An enormous number of people have been kidnapped, extorted for ransom, killed. They’re sitting ducks for organized crime and are living in dangerous conditions. Keeping tens of thousands of migrants there indefinitely is both illegal and inhumane.
BU Today: Who are the people waiting at the border and why are they seeking asylum?
For the most part, they’re young people and families. There are an enormous number of unaccompanied children who have fled domestic violence, forced gang recruitment, gang violence, religious violence. We’re talking about hardworking people who have made the only choice they had, which was to flee their country.
BU Today: You’re teaching a new LAW class this semester, Immigration Enforcement & Asylum at the US-Mexico Border. Will you be incorporating the Biden executive orders into it?
I put a note in the syllabus saying that given how dynamic immigration is, and especially now, it’s subject to change. And here we are, just days before the first class and we already have new material.
The thing is, on some level things have changed, and they haven’t changed. Because on the one hand, I can say, ‘Biden has said he’s not going to continue with the border wall construction,’ but we still have hundreds of years of border enforcement that we have to confront because we’re going to cover the history of the border and the white supremacist roots of Customs and Border Patrol. We’re going to talk about that. We’re going to talk about deaths along the border, the right to seek asylum, and the ways that right has been curtailed. There are so many things to talk about that don’t change overnight with the Biden administration.
BU Today: Do you think the fear and hate and divisiveness around immigrants will change?
I hope so. But if it does—and again, I hope it will—it will not happen overnight. These changes Biden has made are important, but what’s going to be even more important is the tone, tenor, and substantive actions of this administration in the months and years to come. Is this administration consistently seeking inclusivity and equity and justice? If so, great, let’s get to work. If not, I look forward to working alongside our students to hold them accountable.