Comprehensive Immigration Reform Must Protect & Promote Families’ Well-Being

On his first day in office, President Biden announced that he was sending a comprehensive immigration bill to Congress, creating a path to citizenship for approximately 11 million undocumented immigrants; lawmakers formally introduced the bill last week. The announcement, combined with a series of executive actions to roll back some of the most harmful policies of the Trump administration, sent a hopeful message to immigrant families across the country that immigration reform will be a top priority for the Biden-Harris administration. Comprehensive immigration reform is long overdue and necessary to achieve a more equitable immigration system for families. As we noted in our 2019 report, Our Future Together, comprehensive immigration reform must be guided by a commitment to protect and promote the health and well-being of children and families.

First, the Biden-Harris administration must discard harmful policies, including immigration enforcement actions that were weaponized by the Trump administration to tear families apart. Use of enforcement on families living in the United States can lead to the detention and deportation of parents, and place families in an impossible situation of deciding whether their children should move to a country they have never seen, and which may pose dangers, or stay in the U.S. and be permanently separated from them. The threat of enforcement also takes a toll on the mental health of young children in immigrant families as many fear they will be separated from their caregivers. Black and Latinx families have been disproportionately threatened by immigration enforcement in the interior and at the border. Most recently, it was reported that Black immigrants are being disproportionately targeted at the border and approximately 900 Black immigrant families who came to the border seeking asylum were deported back to Haiti. Additionally, Black, Latinx, and Asian immigrants have been targeted by policies that limit their ability to obtain legal status. Although President Biden’s immigration bill is comprehensive, it does not address the harm of using enforcement on families living in the interior or who are seeking asylum at the border. To promote the safety of immigrant families, we need to discard enforcement policies that disproportionately impact Black and Latinx immigrant families, and more broadly, rethink the role of enforcement within the immigration system.

Second, families must be protected from further harm. Families who are currently undocumented should be granted immediate permanent legal status. Today, an estimated five million children are growing up in mixed-status families, where at least one parent is undocumented. Children in mixed-status families are less likely to have access to early education and affordable and nutritious foods, and more likely to struggle to make ends meet. Obtaining permanent legal status changes that. For instance, after the passage of the Immigration Reform Control Act of 1986, research shows that 2.7 million people received legal status and soon after earned higher wages, moved on to better jobs, and invested more in their education. A path to citizenship must also be accompanied with additional reforms so a large population without legal status does not develop in the future.

Finally, reforms must actively promote families’ well-being by improving access to supports and services. Under current law, families who are undocumented are almost entirely ineligible for supports and services, while most lawful permanent residents are barred from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), Medicaid, Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP) and other critical supports until they have lived in the United States for five years. Even when families are eligible for supports, the Trump Administration’s public charge rule, which makes it more difficult for immigrant families to adjust their status and become legal permanent residents or obtain temporary visas if they used specific noncash benefits, has caused fear and confusion, leading families to avoid services they desperately need. In 2019, 1 in 5 adults in immigrant families reported that they or a family member avoided public benefits, such as SNAP, Medicaid, and housing subsidies, for fear of being unable to adjust their status in the future because of the new public charge rule. The COVID-19 pandemic has only increased the need for basic supports, but immigrant families are hesitant to access relief programs and are expressing concerns about taking the COVID-19 vaccine due to fear of enforcement. While the public charge rule remains in effect, President Biden recently took the first step toward eliminating it by issuing an executive order that requires relevant agencies to conduct an immediate review of the rule’s policies. To fully support family well-being, we need to strike language about the public charge rule from immigration law to ensure it is never weaponized again and change the eligibility requirements for public benefits to ensure that all immigrant families have access to supports and services.

It is well past time to reform our harmful and archaic immigration system. We can and must take concrete steps to discard harmful policies, protect families from further harm, and actively promote the well-being of all immigrant families as we strive toward a collective vision—a future in which immigrant families are able to meet their needs and thrive in the country they call home.