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‘You give your life here, and still you can’t be free’: Frustrated immigrant rights advocates push Biden to act

Immigrants and their supporters marched to the Capitol in Washington on Tuesday.Andrew Harnik/Associated Press

WASHINGTON — For more than 15 years, Doris Landaverde has worked as a janitor at Harvard University, cleaning offices, classrooms, and labs, and shoveling snow in the winter. For just as long, she has hoped for permanent residency in the United States, the country she has called home since she left her native El Salvador at 21.

Nothing put her future here more in jeopardy, she said, than when former president Donald Trump began in 2017 to dismantle temporary humanitarian protections for hundreds of thousands of immigrants, including Salvadorans. Pushed by the fear of deportation, she joined other immigrant activists working to persuade Congress to build permanent pathways to citizenship for people like her who have been kept in immigration limbo for too long.


That battle, to her frustration, did not end with the election of a new president.

On Tuesday, she was among the thousands of immigrants from across the country who marched down the streets of Washington in an effort to sway President Biden to take action on immigration, as his administration has struggled this week to explain its treatment of Haitian asylum seekers in Texas and Democrats appeared poised to strip out avenues to permanent residency and citizenship for millions of immigrants from their massive spending bill.

“We do feel frustrated,” said Landaverde, 43, an advocate with the National TPS Alliance, an organization for Temporary Protection Status holders, over the lack of movement on immigration. “But Democrats still have the power here — and to look around at all these people coming out gives us hope, too.”

Marching alongside members of the New Immigrant Community Empowerment nonprofit in New York, Tene Ovedraogo, 61, who takes care of elderly people in the Bronx, said she wanted Biden to stay true to his promises to do more to help refugees and immigrants.


“You work hard, you care for the sick, you give your life here, and still you can’t be free,” said Ovedraogo, who immigrated from Burkina Faso, West Africa, in 2002, and was bedecked in a yellow NICE shirt, the Statue of Liberty standing in for the letter “I.”

The frustrations were palpable among immigrant rights advocates and activists who had hoped for a changing tide on immigration when Biden took office with detailed proposals to reverse Trump’s policies and usher in a more humanitarian approach at the nation’s borders.

Biden has had only mixed success as he grapples with the highest numbers of border crossings in 20 years, fueled by a worsening climate crisis, ongoing drug violence and poverty in Latin American and African nations, and backlogged immigration courts after Trump all but closed the path to asylum and shut down the nation’s borders amid the pandemic. While Biden has rolled back some of Trump’s harsher immigration policies, he has kept others, including the ability to speedily deport asylum seekers without a hearing due to the pandemic.

In the first months of his presidency, Biden has had to respond to high numbers of children crossing the US-Mexico border alone after fleeing violent and hurricane-ravaged areas in Honduras and Guatemala; a massive resettlement of tens of thousands of Afghan families in military bases after a chaotic evacuation from Afghanistan; and the arrival of roughly 15,000 Haitian migrants in Del Rio, Texas, as conditions continued to deteriorate in Haiti through the pandemic, an earthquake, and the assassination of President Jovenel Moïse.


The Biden administration has struggled to deal with 15,000 Haitian migrants and others arriving in Del Rio, Texas. Many have crossed back.Fernando Llano/Associated Press

Administration officials announced on Tuesday an investigation into the practices of US Customs and Border Protection agents in Del Rio after images surfaced of horse-mounted officers appearing to threaten Haitian migrants with their reins. Vice President Kamala Harris and Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas also denounced the actions.

“What I saw depicted about those individuals on horseback treating human beings the way they were is horrible,” Harris said, adding that “human beings should never be treated that way, and I’m deeply troubled about it.”

The administration has swiftly deported many Haitians from Texas even as Representative Ayanna Pressley and dozens of other congressional Democrats have been urging the administration to halt all deportations of Haitian migrants.

Pressure to act on immigration further escalated this week after the Senate parliamentarian ruled against the inclusion of a sweeping immigration proposal in a $3.5 trillion, 10-year spending package crafted by Democrats to expand the nation’s social safety net and tackle the climate crisis. The rejected measures would have opened new pathways to legal permanent residency, and possibly even citizenship, to some 8 million people, including essential workers and farmworkers, immigrants under Temporary Protected Status, and students and workers brought to the country illegally as children, often known as “Dreamers.”

The move means it’s unlikely Democrats would enact a sweeping overhaul of the nation’s out-of-date immigration laws — which hasn’t happened since President Ronald Reagan granted citizenship to millions of people in 1986 — without winning Republican votes in the Senate. Democrats said they were still trying to include a pathway to citizenship in the bill.


Immigrant rights lawyers, advocates, and activists are hoping to continue to pressure Congress to take up the measures, even if it means a piecemeal approach that covers fewer people.

Trump’s aggressive policies on immigration actually pushed Americans overall to the left on the issue, and a majority of voters have long supported protections for Dreamers, polls have shown. But among Republicans, echoing Trump’s push for crackdowns on migrants and stoking fear of demographic changes remains a popular tactic, hampering movement on the issue politically.

An overhaul of immigration laws “seems harder than ever before,” said Maria Delgado, 43, a home care attendant, who attended the rally with her husband, Javier Leon, 35, a construction worker.

“Trump injected so much hate, so much racism against us immigrants,” said Delgado, adding that she had watched the nation’s bitter immigration debate play out for decades under Republican and Democratic presidents.

Others echoed similar thoughts as they marched in the capital, banging drums, blowing whistles, and chanting, “No somos uno, no somos 10, somos millones, cuéntenos bien.” (“We are not one, we are not 10, we are millions, count us right.”)

Many said they were still holding out hope Biden and his administration would take a more visible approach on the issue — and not let it fall by the wayside as it had when Biden served under President Barack Obama.


“We want [Biden] to be just as vocal as he was on the campaign trail,” said Vanessa Velasco, 41, a community advocacy and engagement coordinator with the Central American Resource Center of Northern California in San Francisco. “We want him to fight for us as he said he would fight for us.”

Joel Rivera, director of organizing for the MIRA Coalition, a statewide immigrant and refugee advocacy network based in Boston, said that after four years of being on the defensive, immigrant rights advocates and Democratic legislators must now be on the offensive.

“We have been pushing for 30 years, and there is a lot of momentum right now,” he said. It was an opportunity that he said legislators should not let slip away: “That is a fear of mine — that we will miss the moment.”