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Biden is pursuing a pathway to citizenship. He will face two key challenges.

One challenge: inclusion of immigrants who don’t fit prevailing norms of deservingness.

Workers begin to remove a display of flags on the National Mall on Jan. 21, the day after the inauguration of President Biden. (Rebecca Blackwell/AP)

In his first days in office, President Biden issued a temporary moratorium on deportations and proposed legislation that would grant permanent resident status to Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) recipients, as well as individuals with temporary protected status. The plan includes a pathway to citizenship for an estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants.

It remains to be seen whether Biden will be successful. The deportation freeze has already been challenged in court, and the prospects in Congress are uncertain.

And even if Biden is successful with this initial immigration agenda, my research suggests he will face two key challenges. The first is how to include immigrants who don’t fit within our prevailing national narrative of the “deserving” immigrant. The second is how to address what many consider to be due process and human rights violations committed under the Trump administration.

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Challenges to inclusion

The “deserving” immigrant narrative says only certain immigrants are worthy of membership in the American polity. This narrative rests on Protestant values of individualism and meritocracy, and requires immigrants to achieve economic success to be considered “deserving.” DACA and a pathway to citizenship are popular because the eligibility criteria includes some combination of length of residence in the country, educational attainment and a lack of criminal background.

But because of the rapid expansion of immigration enforcement under the Obama and Trump administrations, many undocumented immigrants remain in detention or in legal limbo. These immigrants have lived here for decades and their children are U.S. citizens, but their backgrounds may not conform to American perceptions of deservingness. Some may not have a high school degree. Some, although not most, may have a criminal record, however minor. Their situation is the result of the convergence of the immigration system with the U.S. carceral state.

How I did my research

My research examines how undocumented immigrants think about their relationship to government and how immigration policy structures their participation in politics. Since May 2020, I have interviewed immigrants referred from legal aid organizations and through recruitment via previous interviewees. So far, I have interviewed 40 people in nine states (Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, Arizona, Texas, Oklahoma, California, New York and Virginia).

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Of these 40, 28 were detained at some point and 12 individuals have had a family member detained. They hail from Mexico, Venezuela, El Salvador, Honduras, Guatemala, Haiti and Russia. They include individuals who have been in the country since the 1980s as well as some who arrived recently. They range in age from 19 to 52.

What immigrants say

How do experiences with this repressive face of government affect political participation? To date, political science research finds these experiences can have alienating effects for some but mobilizing effects for others.

One respondent, Marco, came to the U.S. when he was 13 years old. He has lived here for 18 years. He dropped out of high school at 16 and started working immediately. He switched jobs to spend more time with family. At the new job, he was the victim of labor violations, including unpaid wages.

When Marco complained, the employer retaliated by filing false theft charges against him. He was appointed a public defender and took a plea deal without being advised about the consequences for his immigration status. This was Marco’s only criminal conviction. After serving a four-month sentence, he was detained for 15 months in multiple county jails contracted by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). He said that the hardest part of detention was being separated from his children. His 5-year-old daughter still sees a therapist.

Eventually, Marco was able to obtain lawful status in the United States. He now works from 7 a.m. to 9 p.m. during the week, and delivers groceries for Instacart on his days off. He doesn’t have time to participate in traditional political activities. Nonetheless, mobilized by his experience, Marco provided testimony in a congressional hearing regarding detention. He continues to help other immigrants navigate the immigration system.

When I asked Marco what he thought about President Biden pursuing a pathway to citizenship, he was conflicted: “That will help, but ICE shouldn’t be able to treat people the way they do. I felt like I was being tortured, but I had to fight to stay here for my kids. My case worked out, but my family lost everything. There are a lot of people like me who were deported or are still detained.”

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Moving beyond “deservingness”

Like Black Americans, immigrants are resilient. But they have been subjected to extensive human rights violations. One of my respondents witnessed sexual misconduct between two officers during an ICE transfer: “I was disgusted. I didn’t know what was going to happen next. I felt helpless.” Most respondents who were detained report serious concerns about the management of covid-19 in detention.

Experiences like these are why some Dreamers are rejecting the “deserving” immigrant narrative. After years of sacrificing their families, they argue that no matter how “hard” you work, the government does not protect people like them, or their family members.

Thus, although a pathway to citizenship would transform the lives of many undocumented immigrants, the experience of Black Americans has shown that citizenship alone will not mend relationships with law enforcement or rebuild trust. Nor will it address systematic inequalities, which have only been exacerbated by the coronavirus pandemic’s disproportionate impact on Black and immigrant communities. Biden also faces calls from immigrant activists to defund ICE, Customs and Border Protection (CBP) and local police — and to end the collaboration between these groups and the racialized violence that results.

Ultimately, in the eyes of my respondents, President Biden has a congressional majority, and a Black-led multiracial coalition gave him a mandate to root out systemic racism from the country’s institutions and white supremacists from our security forces. And as public policy research has shown, inclusive policies can promote political engagement. But policies that reward a few and punish many others can reproduce structural inequalities. The question is which direction U.S. policy will go with a new administration in power.

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Romelia M. Solano (@romelia_solano) is a fourth-year PhD candidate in political science at the University of Notre Dame. Her research on immigration detention and political activism is funded by a National Science Foundation Doctoral Dissertation Research Improvement Grant.