Indy Q&A: Nevada lawyers on how immigration policy has changed under Biden
Thousands of Nevada immigrants who faced a tumultuous reality under the Trump administration hoped the Biden administration would be swift to shift course and accomplish ambitious goals such as a pathway to citizenship for millions of undocumented immigrants.
But immigrants were also skeptical of the promises, having waited decades for immigration reform to become a reality. Nevada DACA holders have faced another setback as a Texas judge barred new applicants from the program, and efforts to pass immigration reform with a simple majority in Congress have stalled.
Southern Nevada immigration attorneys Kathia Quiros and Martha Menendez joined The Nevada Independent en Español on Thursday during a Cafecito Live! event in Las Vegas to reflect on the state of immigration policy nine months into the Biden administration. The state is home to more than 12,000 DACA recipients, 4,000 TPS holders and the highest proportion of undocumented immigrants in the U.S.
In a wide-ranging interview, Quiros and Menendez offered insight into whether immigration reform is likely to pass Congress this year or in the near future, the state of DACA, the situation at the southern border and more. The attorneys also answered a few questions from the audience.
This interview has been translated from Spanish and edited lightly for length and clarity.
The Nevada Independent en Español (Indy): We’re now nine months into the Biden administration. Looking back to the inauguration in January, what were people expecting to be happening, and how has that compared to reality?
Menendez: At first, it was an enormous relief, thinking that there would be someone with compassion for what people were suffering through, especially at the border, where there is an obviously concerning humanitarian crisis.
Unfortunately … especially at the border, there has not been anything to celebrate — especially from what we’ve seen this week, the agents of Border Patrol the way they continue to treat people — until we assume that responsibility and really become aware of what we are allowing to happen there.
Quiros: There have been a lot of changes with the new administration. The majority of the changes have been subtle, the majority of which people cannot feel because this administration has undone big changes made during the Trump administration. And we have to be grateful for that. Unfortunately there have not been changes which the mass of the immigrant community needs. And those deficiencies are of a political nature, there’s nothing the government can do, it needs to go through Congress.
Indy: There was a big disappointment for immigration reform advocates this week because the Senate parliamentarian, who is in charge of the rules, decided that senators cannot pass immigration reform with only 50 percent of senators and must have 60 percent. The Senate is divided, 50 percent Democrats and 50 percent Republicans. Is there hope in that situation that it can get Republican support for immigration reform? Can that happen this year or in the future?
Menendez: Much of what we call politics happens behind closed doors. I understand that Democrats, if they want to pass the reform, need to find a way to work with their colleagues otherwise they cannot advance. I hope they take this moment to reflect and not leave behind the people who they say they prioritize, that it won’t just be a slogan for their campaigns.
The parliamentarian said she didn’t see the connection between immigration reform and the budget proposal. But I was reading that granting a path to citizenship for 8 million people between TPS (Temporary Protected Status) and DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) holders would add $1.5 trillion to the economy. We shouldn’t see it as a failure, but a call to action, to make it more visible.
Indy: We are entering an election year and politics always change when elections are close. Do you think it’s possible that Republicans want to collaborate and help Democrats pass immigration reform?
Quiros: No. I don't think it’s possible while we have a crisis at the border. But I think something can still be done in regards to this bill in the budget proposal because if we can’t create a program that will legalize and grant residency to Dreamers, TPS holders, farmworkers and essential workers, we can still do things that, without granting them residency, can give them work authorization and allow them to petition residency through other routes.
We can revive the 245(i) or create a similar law. 245(i) is a law that allows someone who is undocumented to apply for residency by paying a fine. If this law was revived, which has happened on two occasions in the past, the last time being in April 2001, it would help millions of people who have a family petition and cannot apply for residency despite that their visas are approved and current because they are undocumented.
Indy: I want to switch topics to DACA — the most recent in that roller coaster is that a judge in Texas issued a blow to the program. New applicants cannot apply but those currently protected can renew their status. What are you hearing from your clients in regards to that experience, especially the young ones who did not have the same opportunity as the older Dreamers? And what are you hearing from Dreamers who applied but their applications were not approved?
Quiros: There's a lot of frustration but there’s also a lot of anxiety, especially among the younger immigrants who don't have work authorizations and have felt how the pandemic has affected their families and want to find work, who need to find work to help their mom and dad. They can’t do it in a legal manner because they don’t have a work permit. And when they submitted their applications, they spent nearly $500 dollars to do it and lost that money.
They don’t know what’s going to happen. We can’t tell them DACA will win the courts, because we don’t know what will happen. That hurts my soul, to see sadness and anxiety in a young person who wants to move forward and cannot when they are not culpable for having come to this country and making a life here.
Menendez: To add to that, it is of the utmost importance to find a permanent path to citizenship because having to renew every two years without knowing what will happen — that’s not a way to live. Especially for DACA recipients who are young and are beginning their lives — how can you plan your life if you don’t know what will happen to you in two years? It’s impossible and it’s an unnecessary cruelty. It doesn't have to be that way.
Indy: Kathia, you mentioned the crisis at the border. For those who are not up to date, there are thousands of people, many of whom are Haitian, in Texas who are living there, waiting to be deported or seeking asylum. We are going to hear a lot of that topic in campaigns. What do you want people to know about that situation, and what are your recommendations to resolve that?
Quiros: It's obvious that the message of the U.S. is that the borders are not open, that we are not a country that happily welcomes immigrants. The situation has gotten worse by the inefficiency of the government not having refugee programs that allow people to ask for refuge from their countries before attempting to come here.
The majority of people who ask for asylum at the border do not qualify for asylum because in order to qualify, people have to be facing persecution for specific reasons — for religion, race, political opinion, gender or because you’re part of a special group and your government will not protect you.
What they are asking for is refuge, what they are asking for is protection, because violence, poverty and natural disasters do not allow them to live in their countries. But that is not asylum.
In the era of President Trump, the refugee program practically disappeared. Now, President Biden said he’s going to raise [the refugee cap] to 125,000, but 125,000 is nothing, 125,000 is going to be met with the quantity of Afghans that we have to bring to protect them so they won’t be killed … The program of refugees they want is not sufficient. It does not match the reality the world is dealing with.
Indy: Nevada announced recently it will accept 150 Afghan refugees who were evacuated after the withdrawal of U.S. troops after a 20-year war and the rapid Taliban takeover. We’ve seen a lot of opinions in regards to this. The refugee cap is higher than during the Trump administration, but is lower than what advocates would like to see. What are your opinions about the role the U.S. plays in the humanitarian crisis we are seeing in Afghanistan?
Menendez: It’s obvious that we have a lot of responsibility to take as many Afghan refugees as we can, given that we spent 20 years there, by one count, many more by others. That situation was not created by us, but we had a lot to do with it. Now we have to support those who helped our officials in Afghanistan as interpreters and not only that, there are young people who grew up in a modern Afghanistan who used their voices and came out against the government. Now, to abandon them there to be tortured or killed, should not happen.
Just because we left doesn’t mean we can wash our hands of it. The right thing, in my opinion, would be to leave Afghan refugees out of the quota — that should be separate. The rest of the refugees should be accepted from other countries. We like to say there’s no funding and no place to put them, but that can be found. We have a moral responsibility to those people and we should do everything we can to accept them.
Indy: A question from the audience: I applied for DACA and I went to my biometrics appointment. When will I know if I am accepted or not? What will happen to my application? Does my dad get deported after acceptance?
Quiros: The first and most important part is nothing will happen to your father, anybody that is included in your application that you mentioned, so don't worry about them, nothing will happen to them.
The second part … Your application was accepted … Your application is on hold, and it’s going to be on hold until either the courts decide to leave DACA or to cancel DACA, or until Congress decides to pass the Dream Act or a law that will protect the Dreamers. It was good that you filed the application because you are protected from deportation.
Indy: DACA, specifically, is really popular. Polls show 70 or 80 percent of the population supports Dreamers. Why does nothing change with that and we’re always waiting on court decisions?
Menendez: It's easy to use DACA or TPS holders as bargaining chips for political purposes. We’ve gotten to a situation in politics where there’s a tension between both parties where I don’t think they’re going to give anything. Each step, each victory, we have to fight hard for.
Indy: How can the public discern between what is accurate information and what they see on social media, something they hear from word of mouth through family members, which creates confusion, especially considering the changes in immigration policy?
Menendez: Each case is a different world. Any small, unimportant detail can change the situation and that’s why it's of the utmost importance that you never see a notario (person unqualified to practice immigration law who offers immigration services), find an attorney with a good reputation, someone you can trust in. Communicate with community organizations that can provide information on good attorneys, or search on the Nevada Bar website. You can type in their name and see if they are a licensed attorney or not, that is public information.
Don’t be fooled by what you hear from people, even if it’s people who have gone through similar situations as yourself. Because once you go and sign something with a notario or a notario submits a document for which you are not eligible, they have ruined your chances of adjusting your status in the future. That’s fraud and cannot be fixed. Investigate by your own account to know you’re speaking to someone you can trust.
Quiros: Fake news is everywhere but there are many sources of good information. If something sounds too good to be true, visit the immigration website — USCIS website. If it’s not on that page, it means it is not true, it does not exist. Thanks to God and the power of social media, there are a lot of respectable sources of information. There's The Nevada Independent en Español, there are other news organizations.
Is there anything you’d like to add?
Quiros: I want to tell the immigrant community that we are passing through times of anxiety but if you have an opportunity to fix your status and haven’t because you’re waiting for immigration reform, do it now, find your lawyer now, and work actively on that process to obtain residency.
If you don’t have a way to fix your status and you’re fighting for immigration reform, don’t hesitate to call your senator to tell them every day that you support immigration reform, that you support pro-immigrant laws. We have to be part of the political process of this country for things to change. Sooner or later, they’ll change. If it isn’t because of the power of our political movement, it’ll be because of the quantity of voting Latinos. We need to keep fighting.