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Top stories of 2021: Immigration hopes for Biden’s first year largely unfulfilled in Pa.

Biden’s first weeks in office were filled with executive actions, but policy has moved little.

  • Anthony Orozco
Immigrants and advocates demonstrate at the State Capital, calling for expanded access to driver's licenses and in-state tuition.

Anthony Orozco / WITF

Immigrants and advocates demonstrate at the State Capital, calling for expanded access to driver's licenses and in-state tuition.

(Harrisburg) –  A throng of immigrants, their families and advocates demonstrated outside the state capitol earlier this month.

They spent the day walking the halls to lobby for two specific changes to state law to make the commonwealth more incluse to immigrants, regardless of their status.

One would allow people to obtain a driver’s license with a Tax ID number rather than a social security number. The other would allow students who have attended school in the commonwealth for the past two years to pay in-state tuition.

Eva Bravo, who has college-aged children, was among the demonstrators.

“I’m here to fight for licenses for Pennsylvania and also here for a worthy education for [undocumented or DACA recipient] children,” Bravo said in Spanish. “In reality, paying for out-of-state tuition is so expensive that many times, they can’t study.”

Immigration advocates have said they are refocusing their efforts to help immigrants on the state level due to a lack of progress made on the federal level.

Developments in Pennsylvania have shown how immigration enforcement has changed, if only slightly, under a new president and administration.

Cautiously optimistic

Entering 2021, immigration advocates had reason to be hopeful.

President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris campaigned on sweeping changes to immigration and a “humane” enforcement policy.

Democratic presidential candidate former Vice President Joe Biden speaks at a drive-in campaign stop at Bucks County Community College in Bristol, Pa., Saturday, Oct. 24, 2020.

Andrew Harnik / AP Photo

Democratic presidential candidate former Vice President Joe Biden speaks at a drive-in campaign stop at Bucks County Community College in Bristol, Pa., Saturday, Oct. 24, 2020.

With Biden’s victory and Democrats controlling both chambers of Congress, albeit by a slim margin, some said they saw a ray of hope for comprehensive immigration reform.

But advocates in the commonwealth, like Maegan Llerena with Latino advocacy group Make The Road, were wary.

“We can give anybody a break, because we have been living like this without a break,” Llerena said. “We need to make sure that we’re holding him accountable from day one, cautiously optimistic.”

President Biden issued a number of immigration executive orders when he took office, including protections for DACA and a 100-day freeze on deportations.

Shoba Sivaprasad Wadhia, director of Penn State’s Immigrants’ Rights Center, saw the move as a significant change from the immigration policy of former President Donald Trump, who branded his term in office with restrictionist and punitive enforcement.

“I really see it as a signal to restore prosecutorial discretion and exercise immigration enforcement in a more humane way moving forward,” Wadhia said in January.

Biden’s administration faced challenges and backlash as a wave of asylum seekers arrived at the southern border.

In this March 30, 2021, file photo, young minors lie inside a pod at the Donna Department of Homeland Security holding facility, the main detention center for unaccompanied children in the Rio Grande Valley run by U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP), in Donna, Texas.

Dario Lopez-Mills / AP Photo

In this March 30, 2021, file photo, young minors lie inside a pod at the Donna Department of Homeland Security holding facility, the main detention center for unaccompanied children in the Rio Grande Valley run by U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP), in Donna, Texas.

He has received opposition from multiple fronts for the crisis at the border, with conservatives saying he was too lenient and liberal factions noting much of Trump’s enforcement apparatus remained intact.

Detention expands in the commonwealth

Far from the U.S.-Mexico border, shifts in immigration enforcement in Pennsylvania illustrate how policies have only changed slightly.

Immigrant detention has increased by more than 50 percent under Biden, and three communities in the commonwealth dealt with the issue.

Under the Biden administration’s direction, immigration authorities released detained women and children from the Berks County Residential Center. The center is owned and operated by the county in a contract with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

However, county and federal leaders were secretive about plans to convert the facility into an all-female migrant detention center.

Immigration lawyer and advocate Bridget Cambria in Reading has long called for the center to close completely.

“To choose women as their next fallback is sort of like a slap in the face,” Cambria said. “Those women need resources, not jails.”

Anthony Orozco / WITF

ALDEA executive director Bridget Cambria reviews work of communications and intake assistant Nathalia Cruz in ALDEA’s downtown Reading office.

The other two family detention centers in Texas were used as “staging centers” for migrant families months after the administration said it would no longer hold migrant families. Earlier this month it was reported all former family detention centers are converting to holding single adults.

York County closed its immigrant detention center in August over financial issues.

Gabriela Martinez / WITF

The Carmonas hug after Alfredo Carmona, an Immigrations and Customs Enforcement detainee at York County Prison, was released on humanitarian parole on Aug. 2.

The move opened the door for Clearfield County to contract with the federal government and a private prison corporation to house the largest detention center in the northeast.

Clearfield County Commissioner John Sobel said the project will support the school district and provide jobs.

“We just think that it will be a significant boon to the local economy, particularly the Moshannon Valley area of the local economy,” Sobel said.

‘The most basic’ needs

Desi Burnette is the statewide coordinator for the immigrant advocacy group Movement of Immigrant Leaders of Pennsylvania, or MILPA.

Burnette joined Eva Bravo and other members of the group for the day of action in Harrisburg this month.

Burnette says once-lofty promises from Biden and other national leaders for a pathway to citizenship have been stripped down with every passing month.

A comprehensive reform bill proposed by President Biden remained stagnant for much of the year. Then there was an initiative to squeeze reform into the Congressional budget reconciliation process, blocked for a second time last week by the Senate parliamentarian.

“It’s just been cut back further, further, further back all year long,” Burnette said. “Now we’re at a point at the end of the year, we don’t know if the 11 million undocumented in this country are going to be able to have any kind of relief at this point.”

In her role in the Senate, Harris has the power to overrule the parliamentarian, but has chosen not to.

Kimberly Paynter / WHYY

Members of immigrant advocate organizations rallied outside the ICE detention center in Philadelphia, demanding the release of detainees on Aug. 12, 2021.

“The Biden administration is not doing all that it can do to ensure that the most basic, that people have a pathway to citizenship is very basic,” Burnette said.

Immigrants and activists said they are thankful for the changes that have been implemented by the Biden administration. But they also expressed a deep disappointment in the scale and scope of those changes and how that is seen in the state.

With Congressional midterms coming next year, the Democrats’ precarious handle on power in Congress may slip. Biden still has three more years in office in a country as politically divided as ever.

From the vantage point of immigrants and advocates in Pennsylvania, comprehensive immigration reform still appears far from reach.


Anthony Orozco is part of the “Report for America” program — a national service effort that places journalists in newsrooms across the country to report on under-covered topics and communities.

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