San Francisco, CA — Just one month into the Biden-Harris administration, Chinese for Affirmative Action (CAA) joined immigration advocates from across the greater San Francisco Bay Area at a virtual roundtable on Tuesday, February 23, 2021, in praising the reversal of former President Donald Trump’s hard-line immigration agenda, and other recent steps toward meaningful immigration reform. 

In “The First 30 Days: What a Biden Administration Means for Asian Immigrants,” which featured speakers from the Immigrant Legal Resource Center (ILRC), Jubilee Immigration Advocates, and the National Korean American Service and Education Consortium (NAKASEC), immigrant advocates offered support for Asian and Pacific Islander immigrant communities in navigating the numerous changes made to U.S. immigration policy since Inauguration Day.

Although underrepresented in the national dialogue on immigration, Asian and Pacific Islander immigrants suffered under the Trump administration, which was responsible for adding restrictions to family-based immigration, increasing barriers to naturalization, and punishing low-income immigrants for accessing  public benefits for which they qualify. 

“Since 2016, Asian communities have been inundated with racist, classist, xenophobic rhetoric that demonizes, and dehumanizes the immigrant population,” said Annette Wong, the Director of Programs at Chinese for Affirmative Action. Now, she continued, immigrant communities see in the Biden-Harris administration a “revived hope for the turning tide of immigration reform” and for “an inclusive and compassionate approach to immigrant communities, no matter what part of the world people are from, or how people migrated to the United States.” 

In English and Chinese, panelists like Sally Kinoshita, Deputy Director of the ILRC, and Amy Lee,  Executive Director of Jubilee Immigration Advocates, discussed changes to family-based immigration,  the naturalization process,  and the public charge rule. Kinoshita explained that immigrant communities can “anticipate the Biden-Harris administration [will] push forward proposals that will benefit immigrants and immigrant families,” adding that “future reforms could be expected to include undocumented immigrants, immigrants eligible for naturalization, and detained immigrants, as well as refugees, asylum seekers, immigrant students, and immigrant workers.”  

Two positive developments under the Biden-Harris administration include an enjoinment of Trump’s attempt to increase naturalization fees and to make the naturalization civics exam more challenging for immigrants to pass. These efforts will not continue moving forward. For the time being, however, on the public charge rule, “not much has changed for undocumented immigrants who are applying for benefits,” said Lee. “There are a lot of hopes and expectations that things will change but right now, on the ground, there hasn’t been a whole lot of concrete changes that affect our clients’ applications. In fact,  there is still a lot of fear in our communities. We still get regular questions about whether or not folks can get public benefits; if that will affect their ability to get legal permanent residence.” 

Panelists also discussed the U.S. Citizenship Act of 2021, which, if passed, would offer a pathway to citizenship for 11 million undocumented immigrants including a number of the 1.7 million undocumented Asians and Pacific Islanders living in the United States. 

“The good thing about this bill is that it is inclusive and it addresses the concerns of all immigrants,” said Lee, “whether they’re DACA recipients trying to apply for jobs, or immigrants trying to petition their siblings or parents in other countries to come to the United States.” Lee explained, as difficult as it will be to pass the U.S. Citizenship Act of 2021, its impact would be felt in immigrant communities nationwide. “We haven’t passed an immigration package like this since the 1980’s. For anyone who cares about the immigrant community, we need to let U.S. Congress know that the time is now” to pass meaningful immigration reform. 

Jose Ng, the Immigrant Rights Program Manager at CAA, seconded her call for legislative action, explaining that the demand for immigration reform pre-dated the Trump administration. “The family-based immigration system is a broken system,” he said. “The current cap on the number of immigrant visas available for family-based immigration categories has led to significant backlogs of Chinese, Filipino, and Indian nationals, applying for green cards through family-sponsored visas.” Petitions can spend years, and sometimes decades, in limbo. Without structural changes, including the passage of the U.S. Citizenship Act of 2021, Ng predicted that backlogs would continue to grow.

The future of the U.S. Citizenship Act of 2021 is still uncertain and some elements of the legislation, including restrictions for immigrants with criminal backgrounds, are contested within the immigrant community. Nevertheless, for Asian immigrants, it could help the Biden-Harris administration in fulfilling its promise to protect the dignity and fair treatment of Asian and Pacific Islander immigrants.