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A Look At Biden's Immigration Policies

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Donald Trump made cracking down on immigration a centerpiece of his presidency, from his travel ban on mostly Muslim-majority countries to his expansion of the border wall with Mexico. On Day 1 of his administration, President Biden got to work reversing those policies with a stack of executive actions. He also sent a sweeping immigration bill to Congress that would create a path to citizenship for an estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants living in the U.S. Now to unpack some of the details of Biden's policies, I'm joined by Muzaffar Chishti. He's a senior fellow at the nonpartisan Migration Policy Institute.

Welcome.

MUZAFFAR CHISHTI: Thank you so much for having me.

CORNISH: A lot to pick apart from Day 1. Was there something in particular in your area of study that struck you?

CHISHTI: I think what the Biden administration really wants is to send a strong signal that immigration in our national identity should be seen as a value and an asset and not as a economic and national security threat, which is what most of the four years of Trump administration had dedicated themselves to.

CORNISH: Are there any changes you saw yesterday that actually could have an immediate impact for immigrants living in the U.S. right now, especially, you know, with all of these executive orders?

CHISHTI: Well, the immediate action probably is going to be on the enforcement priorities. In the very beginning of the Trump administration, he issued a very aggressive executive order which essentially made everyone in this country who's deportable a target for enforcement. So that meant that even if you're just an ordinary status violator, if you're a nanny or a landscaper with no criminal record, you could be picked up for deportation. You could leave in the morning and never come home at night. That era of immigration enforcement this administration wants to end.

So what this administration's going to do through an order they issued yesterday is put a moratorium on all immigration enforcement for the next hundred days, except for people who have committed terrorism and espionage crimes, and use those hundred days to review what priorities should be in place.

CORNISH: Biden was, of course, vice president at one point to Barack Obama, who some immigrant advocates accused of being a deporter-in-chief. Deportation levels were actually higher under Obama than Trump. Do these first-day steps give us any sense about how Biden's approach might differ to Obama's?

CHISHTI: I think it's clear there was sharp difference between Obama's first term and Obama's second term on removals. He became known as a deporter-in-chief for the first term. By the end of his second term, he had really managed to get most of our removal policies under control, that only high-level criminals were now targets of enforcement. I think Biden administration is going to start from that premise, that, look - we cannot deport everyone. We don't have resources. We must target enforcement. But I think they may make it actually narrower than even the Obama administration had been able to achieve towards its end.

CORNISH: As we mentioned earlier, the immigration bill that President Biden is proposing carves out a path to citizenship for millions of undocumented immigrants. What is that path starting to look like?

CHISHTI: Now, that's a really bold initiative. I mean, every single administration since George W. Bush's in 2000 have tried to accomplish that. It's an important goal because 11 million people are living in the shadows of our country, and that's not good either for them or for the rest of us. So I think there is a proposal to provide a pathway for citizenship. The issue with this is that there are just too many other priorities, both administratively, legislatively, which may make that bold action come to fruition quickly hard. So I think maybe more likely is that small subsets of that population may be picked for either a pathway to citizenship or at least protection from deportation in the short run.

CORNISH: Fundamentally, is this a bill that feels symbolic to you?

CHISHTI: Most of the bills and executive orders that were sent yesterday are important symbolically. But they're symbolically important on very important issues. And I think it's also a reminder that, look - just because we can't accomplish it tomorrow doesn't mean we shouldn't try. So he has opened the door, but he can't create all the possibilities of a positive outcome in Congress, which ultimately have to be decided by members of Congress themselves.

CORNISH: Muzaffar Chishti - he's a senior fellow at the nonpartisan Migration Policy Institute.

Thank you for your time.

CHISHTI: Thank you. Hopefully see you soon. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.