A year into Biden's term, WA immigrants stay mired in uncertainty

With immigration policy going nowhere, advocates and immigrants seize new ways to make progress.

A woman holds a flag in a field

A woman holds the United Farm Workers flag as Washington farmworkers host a vigil in the fields where they worked pruning apple trees in below-freezing temperatures in Eltopia, Franklin County, Dec. 14, 2021. They joined nationwide days of vigil demanding the Senate take action and pass the Build Back Better bill. The bill includes immigration reform, offering temporary status to most undocumented immigrants who came to the U.S. before 2011, granting work permits and a reprieve from deportation. (Courtesy of United Farm Workers)

Days before Christmas, U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin, D-West Virginia, withdrew his support for President Joe Biden’s Build Back Better $1.9 trillion spending plan.

Immigrant advocates looked to the bill as a last chance effort to get any immigration reform through Congress after several bills languished in the U.S. Senate in the past few years.

But that wasn’t the only blow. In mid-December, Senate Parliamentarian Elizabeth MacDonough rejected Democrats’ latest attempt to include immigration in the Build Back Better bill. Democrats have argued that immigration reform could be included in the bill because it would have a budgetary impact. 

Under the current version of the bill, up to 7 million undocumented residents who arrived in the U.S. before 2011 could avoid deportation for five years and be eligible for a work permit. The bill also provides provisions to improve the distribution of permanent residency, or green cards, including additional funding to tackle processing backlogs and the ability to use unused visas from previous years. 

While short of the pathway to citizenship that immigrant advocates had pushed for, many had hoped the legislation would provide a step forward by offering some protection for immigrants while advocates continue pushing for a more permanent solution.

With the continued question of whether immigration provisions could be included in the bill and the likelihood of insufficient votes to pass it, undocumented residents are weathering uncertainty once again. 

The contents of the bill are based on Biden’s Build Back Better framework, a comprehensive plan announced before his inauguration that aimed to improve the economic prospects of the middle class. The legislation provides funds for several items, including an extension of the Child Tax Credit. Immigration reform was included in the original plan. The Build Back Better bill is the latest of several efforts proposed to tackle the items in Biden’s plan. 

“To see policymakers, elected officials, play politics with the lives of people like me, with the lives of my family, it’s very disheartening,” said Catalina Velasquez, deputy director of the Washington Immigrant Solidarity Network, a statewide immigrant-led organization aimed at defending the rights and liberties of immigrants and refugees. “It feels like we’re in a moment in U.S. history where we’re so morally bankrupt we can’t prioritize human lives over political disagreement.” 

Still, immigrant advocates press on, as they have for the last two decades. 

“Sen. Manchin has changed his mind several times throughout this reconciliation bill,” said Alizeh Bhojani, immigration policy manager of OneAmerica, which advocates for immigrants and refugees in Washington state. “We remain focused on ensuring that our senators — [Patty] Murray and [Maria] Cantwell — are doing everything they can to continue pushing for [Build Back Better] and including a pathway to citizenship.” 

Indeed, Axios reported earlier this month that Manchin indicated he would reconsider supporting Build Back Better. More recent reports said he was no longer interested in resuming negotiations

Meanwhile, immigration advocates have made a concerted effort to give people impacted by U.S. immigration restrictions a platform to share their stories. Those stories are crucial in articulating what is at stake when it comes to crafting and, ideally, passing immigration reform, organizers said.

Nonimmigrants, particularly politicians, have defined the immigrant narrative for too long, said Velasquez, who immigrated to the U.S. from Colombia. 

At best, people without firsthand experience lack full acknowledgment of immigrants’ contributions beyond their role as laborers. At worst, they paint them as migrants who are to blame for the country’s problems, she said. 

Her organization aims to provide support, including providing information on legal resources and social services and a means for immigrants to speak up. 

“It gives a collective platform for us to stand up and fight back against character assassination,” Velasquez said.

Dozens of Washington farmworkers hosted a vigil in the fields, where they worked pruning apple trees in below-freezing temperatures in Eltopia, Dec. 14, 2021. They joined nationwide days of vigil demanding the Senate take action and pass the Build Back Better bill, which includes immigration reform. The bill would offer temporary status to most undocumented immigrants who came to the U.S. before 2011, granting work permits and a reprieve from deportation. (Courtesy of United Farm Workers)

A long process

For most advocates, the last meaningful immigration reform passed was the Immigration Reform and Control Act in 1986. That plan, approved under President Ronald Reagan, provided temporary legal status to millions of undocumented residents who entered the country before Jan. 1, 1982, and made them eligible to apply for permanent residency and a green card if they met specific requirements. Ultimately about 2.7 million individuals were granted legal status. 

In 1986, several interests came together to make that legislation happen, including those who saw it as a matter of social justice and others who realized the importance of maintaining a solid workforce, said Mario Villanueva, executive director of the Washington State Catholic Conference, which represents the state’s Catholic bishops. The organization advocates for immigration reform as part of its Catholic teachings focusing on “dignity and respect for the human person.” 

“There was a willingness as legislators to collaborate,” he said. “The common cause [was] well-defined.”

Jose Ortiz, an immigrant from Mexico, poses for a portrait beside a statue of the Virgin Mary surrounded by candles near the Tri-Parish food bank in Burlington, where he was working on Dec. 18, 2021. The statue is a popular place for immigrants to pray. Ortiz, an immigrant advocate, moved from Mexico when he was a child and only learned he was undocumented once he started applying for college scholarships. (Grant Hindsley for Crosscut)


Since then, the country’s undocumented population grew from 3.5 million in 1990 to 10.5 million as of 2017, according to figures from the Pew Research Center. There were 240,000 undocumented immigrants in Washington state as of 2016, about 3% of the state’s population and 23% of the state’s immigrant population, according to the American Immigration Council.

Villanueva’s view on immigration policy is shaped by numerous years working in rural development, including with Catholic Charities in Yakima and as state director of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Rural Development under the Obama administration. 

“These folks are seeking to find a better life and are willing to work at it,” he said. “Our laws should be just and reflect fairly to give folks opportunity.”

The most notable attempt at immigration reform came with the original Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors, or DREAM, Act in 2001. Through the bill, temporary conditional residency and the right to work would be granted to undocumented immigrants who entered the U.S. as minors, and so-called “Dreamers” who satisfied additional requirements would get permanent residency. Various versions of the legislation have been introduced. None got far as Republicans and Democrats debate the balance between enforcing border and immigration laws and providing relief for undocumented immigrants.

In 2012, through an executive order, then-President Barack Obama formed the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program. Through the program, more commonly known as DACA, ​​undocumented immigrants could apply for a two-year renewable period of protection from deportation and become eligible for employment and schooling. Former President Donald Trump started phasing out the program in 2017. In 2020, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in favor of DACA and called for the Trump administration to halt the phaseout. The Trump administration was slow to resume operations, refusing to take new applications, but eventually a federal judge in December 2020 forced Trump to resume the program as it was before the 2017 phaseout. 

After taking office in 2021, Biden attempted to reinstate the program, also through executive order. Ultimately, however, the program remains in limbo after a federal judge ruled last year that the program violated the law. The ruling has since prevented the government from accepting new applications, but doesn’t pull status from those currently in the program. 

Among the more recent immigration bills that have stalled in Congress was the Farm Workforce Modernization Act, which provided legal status to those with documented work experience in the agriculture industry. 

The bill is co-sponsored by U.S. Rep. Dan Newhouse, a Republican from Sunnyside in Yakima County, and U.S. Rep. Zoe Lofgren, a Democrat from California. The bill came in late 2019 after months of negotiations involving legislators from both parties, agricultural employers and immigrant advocates. The legislation passed the House twice but struggled to get much traction in the U.S. Senate.

Another bill, the American Dream and Promise Act, which would provide legal status for undocumented immigrants who arrived in the U.S. as children, also passed the House earlier last year but has also languished in the Senate. 

With bills still failing to gain traction in Congress, immigrant advocates got up to speed on other ways to accomplish reform. That included understanding the ins-and-outs of the legislative process. 

“A lot of this year is trying to make sure people aren’t afraid of the word ‘reconciliation,’ ” Alizeh Bhojani of OneAmerica said, referring to the legislative process Democrats are using to gain passage of the Build Back Better bill. 

Under reconciliation, the U.S. Senate can get spending legislation enacted with a majority vote rather than the 60 votes typically required. That means the dominant party — in this case, Democrats — could pass legislation without a single vote from the opposing party, as they are working to do with the Build Back Better bill. 

Part of the learning process for immigration advocates included the Senate parliamentarian process. Previously, the parliamentarian has rejected the inclusion of other immigration provisions, including providing a path to citizenship and updating an existing immigration registry law that would allow people to register for legal status if they arrived in the U.S. before a particular day. Congress has not updated the registry law since passing immigration legislation in 1986. Under the 1986 legislation, anyone who had arrived in the U.S. before Jan. 1, 1972, would be eligible to register for legal immigration status. Previously, the law applied to anyone who arrived in the U.S. before June 30, 1948. 

“It’s already law,” Bhojani said. “It’s a simple fix to update [the year] to 2016, 2015 and create a mechanism where it’s automatically updated. We just don’t have this.” 

It’s easy to reduce these processes as insider politics, but the reality of such rules and processes is designed to prevent people not in power — immigrants — from having much of a say, she said. 

That’s why many advocates believe it’s essential to not just speak for immigrants, but empower them to take an active role in every aspect of the political process. 

The more politically savvy immigrants are, the more collective power they gain, Bhojani said. Part of that work is to familiarize immigrants with the legislative process. 

The United Farm Workers, which represents farmworkers in Washington state, encourages workers to share their stories in hopes of better persuading legislators to support immigration reform policies. Farmworkers, including those represented by UFW, have traveled to Washington, D.C., to speak in support of immigrant policies. 

They use social media, including WhatsApp and Facebook, to stay in touch with their farmworker constituent base, keep members informed and mobilize support when needed. These tools have also provided a way for immigrants to communicate directly with voters who can urge their representatives to support policies, including the provisions in the Build Back Better plan or even immigrant support at the state level.

It’s not unusual, these days, for a farmworker to participate in door-knocking and canvassing, even if they can’t vote themselves, or for them to keep tabs on a congressional hearing while working in the fields. 

“They’ve taken ownership of this campaign,” said Victoria Ruddy, Pacific Northwest regional director of the United Farm Workers in Prosser in Benton County. “They really want to see [immigration reform] happen.” 

Some undocumented immigrants are no longer afraid of revealing their status if it means making progress on policy that affects them, said Elizabeth Strater, the UFW’s director of strategy campaigns. 

Strater believes that is a product of the pandemic’s impact on farmworkers and other essential workers. Since 2020, more immigrants have shared their experiences, even if it meant revealing their undocumented status.

“When people start, little by little, losing their fear [of broadcasting undocumented status], they’re able to make progress and make real change in our society,” Strater said. “They’re starting to lose that fear and starting to find that voice, and it’s powerful.” 

UFW leaders in Washington state and throughout the U.S. have been calling Congressional representatives to push for immigration reform and encouraging family and friends to do the same. Many of them have a significant language barrier, but most are willing to take on the challenge. 

“They’re still doing it because it’s important to them,” Ruddy said. 

And they’re doing this work despite the emotional drain that comes with years, even decades, of uncertainty. 

The Washington Immigrant Solidarity Network takes it a step further with advocacy done by immigrants. Executive Director Brenda Rodriguez Lopez arrived in the U.S when she was 9 and has lived as an undocumented resident in Eastern Washington for more than two decades. Velasquez, the organization’s deputy director, also lived undocumented until she could secure a green card and still has not seen her family since they were deported several years ago. 

Both Rodriguez Lopez and Velasquez feel a sense of urgency to get immigration reform passed, a product of having lived under constant uncertainty and fear as undocumented residents. 

“Advocacy is not just about winning policies,” Rodriguez Lopez said. “The end goal is not just to win citizenship; it’s the collective liberation of all of us.”

Fair Fight bond fund coordinator Vanessa Reyes leads a virtual workshop called “Organizing for Immigrant Justice by Centering Deportation Defense” for the Washington Immigrant Solidarity Network as part of Seattle’s Martin Luther King Jr. week events on Jan. 13, 2022. The class included an explanation of the immigration system and individual rights. (Screenshot of WAISN workshop)

What’s ahead

With Senate Parliamentarian MacDonough’s recent decision to reject the Build Back Better bill’s immigration provisions and Sen. Manchin’s withdrawal of support, immigrants and advocates again question whether their work will pay off. 

“It’s emotional for them to go through this process where we’ve been fighting for this for years,” said Ruddy, the UFW regional director. “Every time we feel we’re getting close, we get a no, we get pushed back, or something changes. It’s frustrating.” 

For Ruddy, seeing the farmworkers continue to fight motivates her to keep going.

“Seeing my leaders share their stories and be vulnerable and show their faces … it reminds me that this is an important cause and families are depending on us,” she said. 

And while much of the attention has been on immigration status, advocates said there are other avenues to gain relief for immigrants, including policies that help them meet basic needs, such as expanded health care and unemployment insurance.

“On the state level, we’re also fighting,” said Bhojani of OneAmerica. “Undocumented workers are excluded from the basic societal safety net.”

For Velasquez, the Washington Immigrants Solidarity Network deputy director, immigrant status doesn’t guarantee basic needs — just the ability to get a job and live without fear of deportation. 

That’s why it’s essential to advocate for other items, such as health care, ensuring that immigrants aren’t just surviving but thriving. 

“We’re here to settle for nothing less than our humanity,” Velasquez said. “That looks like a holistic approach to our well-being.”

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