Immigration Law

Biden-Harris Offers a Chance for an Immigration Reset

US Immigration

Inscribed on the base of the Statue of Liberty, which has been a beacon of hope for dreamers around the world since it was installed in New York Harbor in 1886, is a phrase written by the American poet Emma Lazarus in 1883 (and affixed to the statue on a bronze plaque in 1903):

Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, the wretched refuse of your teeming shore.

Over the past four years, the Trump administration implemented an aggressive shift in U.S. immigration policy away from social and economic development and toward law enforcement. Indeed, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), the government agency responsible for adjudicating immigration and citizenship requests, is part of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS).

In 2018, the USCIS updated its mission statement by removing a passage that contained the words “a nation of immigrants” (which we indisputably are). The move was a reflection of the tone being set by the White House, and a harbinger of more alarming changes at the agency that were to follow in subsequent months.

As a result, among those who cheered loudest when Joe Biden was declared President-elect on November 7th were immigration advocates across the United States.

Unlike any Republican or Democratic administration in the past, the chaos of Trump’s immigration policies and practices has been devastating for American businesses and families. The adjudication of immigration benefits today is incoherent, inefficient, and irresponsible, and to effectively represent and counsel clients, as well as hold USCIS accountable to its mission, immigration lawyers have been compelled to sue the USCIS in federal courts to overcome capricious outcomes.

A Biden-Harris administration should provide a welcome opportunity 1) to reverse the erosion of trust between USCIS and the public and 2) to reestablish America’s global competitiveness by embracing, not rejecting, its immigrant population.

In a recently issued comprehensive blueprint, the American Immigration Lawyers Association (AILA) identified the many aspects of our immigration system that a new administration could begin to correct. Of AILA’s proposals, we believe the ones most relevant to our firm’s business and family immigration clients are:

  • Tone
  • Mission
  • Efficiency
  • Consistency
  • Competitiveness

In this, my first in a series of five posts, I want to talk about Tone, which sends a crucial message not only to American businesses and families, but also to students and businesspeople around the world who may be interested in contributing to “making America great again”.

The notion of making America great again assumes that America has fallen off the pedestal, and the immigration policies and practices that arise out of that philosophy take for granted that America’s decline is because of immigrants. Nothing could be farther from the truth.

I don’t think I have to explain to very many readers of this blog that America is a nation of immigrants, and that without their ongoing contributions, this country would be a very different place, and poorer in every respect. Regular readers of this blog will also know that Trump-era immigration restrictions have dramatically reduced student interest in U.S. universities, which has a significant impact, through the reduction of the estimated $45 billion contributed by international students to the U.S. economy in 2018, according to the U.S. Department of Commerce, and through the diminishment of the skilled labor pool on which American businesses rely.

As an example, since 2000, 40% of Nobel Prizes in chemistry, medicine and physics were awarded to U.S. immigrants. Another example: 55% of start-up companies worth over $1 billion were founded or co-founded by an immigrant, and 23% had a founder or co-founder who first came to the United States as an international student. The value contributed by immigrants to this country since 1776 has been relentless and is immeasurable.

A Biden-Harris administration should first reset the tone of our immigration policy, reminding Americans of the tremendous contributions immigrants have made over the centuries, and reassuring the world that American education and business welcome foreign-born contributions to our nation’s growth.

In immigration adjudications, in which officers enjoy considerable discretion in reviewing petitions and applications, the domino effect of an unwelcoming tone at the top can be catastrophic. It can keep a family from being reunited with parents, a company from making a scientific breakthrough, or a rural hospital from having one more physician on staff to tackle a pandemic.

By changing the tone of America’s conversation – both domestically and overseas – on immigration, President Biden can begin to rehumanize U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services and reestablish collegiality between the agency’s employees and constituents, who include not only visa applicants but also American employers. In the organization’s recently issued blueprint document, AILA President Jennifer Minear wrote, “America needs a new vision that strengthens our families, communities, and economy and re-establishes us as a welcoming nation.”

In our next post on this subject, I will look closely at the mission of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, recap how the agency has deviated from its mission during the past four years, and outline how changes can get immigration policy back on track, with immeasurable benefits to our economy and society.