Lawyers hopeful about future of immigration policy under Biden administration

A woman holds a sign in Copley Square during a protest against President Donald Trump's Muslim immigration ban on Jan. 29, 2017. Photo by Lejla Brackovic/BU News Service

By Saumya Rastogi
BU News Service

Advocates and experts have been saying the pandemic has proved immigrant contributions to the United States, and the incoming Joe Biden administration could create a more welcoming climate for immigrants.  

According to the U.S. Census Bureau population survey of 2019, more than 50 million people residing in the U.S. were born in another country. The United Nations said in 2019 the U.S. has the highest number of immigrants, followed by Germany and Saudi Arabia. 

Immigrants account for 13.7% of the U.S. population, according to a Pew Research Center study. The same study estimates that 77% of immigrants in the country are legal and documented. 

The immigrant population in the U.S. is considered one of the most diverse populations globally, with people from across the world. Mexico tops the list, making up about 25% of all immigrants in the US. This is followed by India and China, with 6% and 5% of the immigrant population. Other countries of birth include the Philippines, El Salvador, Vietnam, Cuba and the Dominican Republic.

Importance of immigrants

Ana Ynegelmo, an immigration attorney, said that the COVID-19 pandemic has shown how vital immigrants are to the U.S. She pointed out that the founders of companies that developed promising vaccines, Pfizer and Moderna, were founded by both immigrants or children of immigrants. 

Ynegelmo added that a high percentage of doctors and nurses are immigrants. The Bipartisan Policy Center estimated that in 2018, 29% of physicians, 38% of home health aides, and 23% of retail store pharmacists are foreign born, and they’re now the workers on the frontlines of battling COVID-19.

Ynegelmo also said that the founder of Zoom Video Communications, Eric Juan, is a foreign-born national. She also highlighted the number of farmworkers, both documented and undocumented, who ensured people had food on the table.

“The pandemic is a perfect example of how immigrants are important to the economy,” she said.

Change in the immigration system

However, according to the DHS data, the immigration rate fell by 12.8% between 2016 and 2019. Ynegelmo said that Donald Trump has made it difficult for people of all nationalities to emigrate to the U.S. 

“Trump has made it difficult to get a Green Card through family members,” Ynegelmo said. “Earlier, all one needed was to get an affidavit signed from someone who would sponsor your Green Card. Now, Trump has made it much more difficult to comply with public charge requirements.”

She explained that the Department of Homeland Security now considers factors like age, health conditions and applicant’s job history to determine the public charge. The public charge rule bars immigrants who would be dependent on government aid.

“Older applicants, people with pre-existing health conditions and those with a bad job history are most targeted,” she said. “Even the applicant’s ability to speak English is tested.”

She added that negative credit history, as well as debt, is taken into account as well.

Poorvi Chothani, the founder and managing partner of LawQuest, said that the work visa changes under the Trump administration have also made it difficult and expensive for companies to employ H1B workers.

“The IT sector has been badly affected by this because companies like Google, Facebook employ such workers,” she said.

Chothani added that an interim rule in the comment period changes the lottery system used for H1B visas, making it heavily skewed in favor of H1B workers who will be paid salaries at higher levels of the wage system. 

“This means that entry-level and junior H1B workers may be closed out of the system,” she said, and that the Trump administration had brought both temporary and permanent changes in immigration policies.

She said that the changes were made through a combination of executive orders and presidential proclamations, with interim and final rules with and without comment periods. That and policy changes at the Department of Labor and the US Citizenship and Immigration Services have made immigration criteria stricter.

Stories of immigrants

Those who emigrated here before Trump’s term in office say this is not just a phenomenon of the last four years, but that there has always been discrimination.

Lucky Singh, an immigrant from India, said that he finds himself fortunate to have people who helped him get his Green Card for the U.S.

Singh, who hails from a small village in the Punjab state in India, said that he hadn’t originally intended to build a life in the U.S.

“My father never really wanted me to go out since he wanted me to handle his family business,” he said. “But, I traveled because I wanted to explore opportunities beyond my hometown,” he said.

Despite arriving in the U.S with little in the way of savings, he was able to gain admission to the University of Bridgeport for a master’s degree. With help from the school’s international student’s division, he gained an assistantship and his tuition fee was waived.

“I took up multiple jobs in the university to support myself,” he said.

Singh said that after completing his degree, he gained an internship at Citigroup. However, 9/11 made things difficult for him.

He was scared after somebody told him to go back to his country and another broke into his car and stole valuables. Athough born and raised in the Sikh religion, Singh shaved his beard and stopped wearing his turban.

Ynegelmo, who came from Cuba to the U.S. when she was nine years old, said that her brother’s deportation proceedings set her down the path to becoming an immigration attorney.

“We grew up in a tough neighborhood. My parents were working-class immigrants. I did well in high school,” she said. “However, my brother went down the wrong path.”

While she was an undergraduate at Wharton College in the 1990s, working in the financial sector, her brother was arrested for a drug offense and was serving a jail sentence. 

When her brother was released from jail, he was taken to a federal detention center where he spent 18 months. Cuba did not have an expatriation agreement with the U.S., so he could be detained for an indefinite period of time.

“This influenced me to start working as a paralegal under an immigration lawyer,” Ynegelmo said.

She worked as a paralegal for more than six years and then decided to go to law school.

“My brother’s deportation moved me,” she said. “Having experienced that first hand, I like working with the immigration community and find myself to be more compassionate.”

Expectations from Biden

Ynegelmo said temporary changes made to immigration policies could be reversed easily by executive orders from the new administration. She said that Biden could revert to a lot of policies that existed under Obama, which were friendlier to immigrants.

Chothani said that in terms of the statutory change, presidential proclamations expire on Dec. 31 although they can be extended to Jan. 20. She said when Biden takes office, he could easily overturn them and believes Biden can at least undo some of the harm done to immigration under the Trump administration.

In regards to immigration law, Ynegelmo said a key factor will be the results of the senate runoff race in Georgia that will determine Congressional majority.

Chothani said that it is not going to be an easy task for Biden to bring change to immigration policy.

“He has to first deal with the 11 million undocumented immigrants within the U.S.,” Chothani said. “Out of these, he will legalize 5 million DACA families and be left with 6 million who are going to be an issue whenever he goes to the negotiation table.”

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