A good many of us for a good many reasons watched the inauguration on Wednesday, Jan 20 2021 with relief.
The typically uneventful inauguration held a much different tenor this time, conducted as it was in the shadows of the violent events at the US Capitol, just the week prior. Combine that with the once-in-a-century pandemic and the upheaval in the aftermath of the elections and the emotions were definitely dialed to 11.
For Democrats and anti-Trump Republicans, hope for a return to more conventional, less off-the-cuff government was marbled with anxiety about the transfer of power.
Establishment Republicans, Conservatives and Trump supporters are perhaps bracing for a general re-run of the Obama years the prospect of which they likely loath.
Meanwhile, matters of great domestic and international import hang in the balance.
The Biden administration promised a 10-day 'blitz' of Executive Orders aimed at undoing some of the damage wrought by the Trump administration. But, as anyone who has edited a document without turning on a feature to track changes can appreciate, not all changes can easily be undone.
Even the obvious ones...
I'm sure the Biden administration will work strenuously to get the US back onto the Paris Climate accord, roll back the infamous Travel Ban that targeted Muslims, and attempt to reunite the families disrupted by the inhuman and unjustifiable separation of children at the border. Perhaps DACA recipients will enjoy slightly more peace for the next four years as well. And this is all, as it should be. These were grievous missteps which need to be corrected. But, these are also the Big Ticket issues that any Democrat administration would necessarily have undone.
The changes were tangible, they had a trail that can be followed and undone.
These issues had visibility. They garnered outrage. A great deal of ink was spilled online and in conventional news media on these issues. These are the issues that had some hope of resolution, with the exit of the Trump administration.
But, not all changes that the federal machinery underwent in the past 4 years are as easily detected. An adversarial culture has seeped into immigration agencies and their respective enforcement arms. This was achieved through sustained attacks of such enthusiastic commanders of the anti-immigrant cause as Stephen Miller, Ken Cuccinelli and those of their ilk.
Despite no alternation in legal language surrounding formal immigration processes, any visa holder can tell you just how much the has ground shifted since 2017. It is hard to place concrete hope in the reversal of these intangible changes, with a change in administration.
And then there are the immigration issues that existed long before Trump and will linger long after...
The burdens that immigrants seeking to make their case for US Permanent Residency on the basis of merit, through employment based immigration had already been heavy, unacknowledged and unappreciated when the 2016 elections came around.
It only got worse, from there...
But this is a story that never occupied the pages, online or otherwise, of prominent news-media. Cast yet again in the rain-shadow regions of news, which immigrants navigating the system have always found themselves in, we carried on as best we could. Faking normal.
Highly skilled individuals trying to immigrate to the US just aren't a category of people that elicit much sympathy. On the surface, we look like just about anyone else for whom life has "worked out" with suburban lives, STEM jobs, cars and families.
What this façade hides though, are the serious issues we face from a system that has devolved into backlogs and utterly opaque bureaucracy.
These issues are de-stabilizing, stressful and emotionally draining. They are also, invisible.
There's something potent in this mix of the arduous, legalistic and bureaucratic which make our stories distinctly un-newsworthy. What you have here are stories that are low on optics, low on drama and high on policy related failures and statistics.
The blunt truth is that the headlines simply no not write themselves for our issues.
I rejoice greatly for the people impacted by the Trump administration's policies and injustices whose voices were able to reach the masses and capture their imagination.
I understand profoundly, the value of this visibility...
There are those of us, whose issues have never had their day in the sun. And this, despite having suffered the brunt of the vitriolic anti-immigrant policies of the Trump administration. The rise in visa denials, lengthening of processing times, vilification of contract workers, weaponizing of Requests for Evidence and adversarial treatment meted out by the CBP.
We saw it. We bore it. As people who "came in the right way".
We watched and rolled our eyes as members of the GOP argued that they weren't against immigration, they only wanted those who sought a life in the US to "get in line". We knew there isn't a "line" for everyone to join and even as they made these statements, they did too.
We swallowed our bitterness knowing the plight was awaits those who do, in fact, "get in line". The frustration, uncertainty and anxiety that overruns the lives of those who followed every step, filled every form, made thousands of dollars worth of payments to the immigration agencies, only to realize that the immutable fact of the country they were born in, was to be the leading criteria that determined their path.
There is no longer the excuse of a lack of data on this issue. From the Cato Institute, we now have telling statistics to what has for too long, been an issue shrouded in silence. This research finds that the US permits "one of the lowest rates of permanent skilled immigration of any developed country"1. US employment-based green cards are limited at 140,000- a majority used not by actual skilled workers, but by their families. What's more this number - 140,000 - has not been revised since it was set in 1990.
There's a reason why immigration issues do not capture popular imagination in the US and lead to rapid change. It is deeply counter-intuitive.
The average American sees a great many foreign-born workers at their workplace. They appear to be doing well. Educated, commanding good salaries, living decent lives. It would seem the US immigration system is working well after all.
What this image hides, is that most of those foreign-born workers Americans interact with are on visas. They are not permanent skilled immigrants and many of them will never attain that position, despite their merit.
There's also, the selection bias. The average American will only see those who have managed to stay despite the obstacles they face. The scores of skilled immigrants that were denied visas, lost jobs, gave up in frustration and ultimately, left remain unseen, unheard and unrecognized.
This is compounded by the fact that immigrants often treat immigration issues as personal because of the toll they exact. They do not reveal the immense stress that immigration imposes upon them. And so, the mirage remains.
For Americans as well as hopeful immigrants, the fact that the country with a feel good bumper sticker- "A nation of immigrants" - has a broken immigration system is a circle simply does not square.
For this and many more reasons, while immigrants can celebrate a return to civility, basic decency and an approach to governance that emphasizes caution and expertise through the Biden administration, their jubilance should not extrapolate to sunny expectations in the immigration landscape.
Our problems are tangled in an unforgiving mix of legal frameworks, competing interests, politics, cultural attitudes regarding immigration and more recently, the economic fallout of the Covid-19 pandemic.
I must admit, I was disheartened to not hear much about immigration reform, specifically the resolution of Green Card backlogs on the campaign trail from Biden-Harris. The silence on the topic seemed deafening…
After it became clear that Trump was on his way out, I only permitted myself very cautious optimism. It was surely a relief that an active adversary of immigrants was departing from the White House, but it was not obvious that Biden would be an ally in the cause of immigration reform.
I'm happy to report, that I was pleasantly surprised when on inauguration day itself, there was news of an immigration proposal from Biden.
Particularly striking were resourceful solutions like excluding the families of high-skill immigrants from the quota which effectively increases the number of available visas without having to butt heads against the overall visa numbers enshrined in law. The proposal reflects at least some of the urgency that the issues pointed to within it, highly warrant.
However, as immigrants, we are no strangers to putting plans, decisions and indeed lives, on hold in hopes of change. The last major immigration law was passed in 1990, thirty years ago. Immigration laws are sticky, the legislative process is long, exhaustive and for those of us waiting in the wings, exhausting.
As immigrants still working through the process, we must temper our enthusiasm with the sobering reality that immigration reform takes time. Precious years of life can easily be spent waiting for immigration to work out. Any immigrant with an exit plan should understand that Congress and the White house being in Democratic control offers no guarantees for resolution of longstanding issues, most notably the crippling immigration backlogs that have become the accepted norm in immigration procedure.
The time has not yet come, where all immigrant eggs can safely be placed in the American basket.
I know that many of you, like me, will watch the inauguration with hope and relief far beyond the scope of immigration. I know that as fellow immigrants, we have all felt pain for the tremendously tragic costs the COVID-19 pandemic has wrought upon the US. Despite what the official documents, forms and visas say, many of us have stayed in the US long enough to feel a sense of belonging here. And as we hope and pray for our countries back home, we do so just as fervently for our adoptive home and society here in the US.
We look forward to science prevailing in the fight against COVID-19. We repose faith that the new administration will take seriously, the fallout of fractured race relations in this country. We hope that under Biden, we will finally move past the public health impact of the pandemic and begin the arduous task of economic recovery.
I will be relieved to see Biden take the helm, as a measured, experienced statesman who has already shown the capability for leadership that his predecessor disavowed.
But, I will also simultaneously exercise restraint and remind myself constantly, that hope is not a plan.