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Houston immigration advocates ‘cautiously optimistic’ about reform efforts

HOUSTON – Many Houston-area immigration advocates and families are hopeful President Joe Biden can enact sweeping immigration reforms. Among other proposals, Biden wants to provide a path to citizenship for an estimated 11 million people living in the country illegally.

“We’re a very religious family so we pray at night. We pray that we’re going to be ok,” said Josue Ventura.

Ventura is a recipient of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program started in 2012. Ventura said he was brought to the U.S. when he was six years old in 2001. He’s grown up in the United States, graduated high school and has a career as a translator for parents with special needs students.

“If I was given the chance to apply for citizenship it would be great,” said Ventura. “If I was a citizen I could request my mom for citizenship since she’s been here way longer than I have.”

Ventura is shielded from deportation as long as he successfully renews his status every two years. However, DACA does not give him a path to citizenship. Ventura also lives in what’s called a mixed-status family. He has DACA, his little sister is a citizen because she was born in the US but his mother is undocumented.

“She’s the one who sacrificed more. I mean I came in through a port-of-entry, but my mom came in through the river and the bushes and the thorns and everything. I mean she could have died like a lot of other immigrants do,” said Ventura.

Biden’s plan is to give those living in the U.S. before January 1st, 2021, who pass background checks and pay taxes, a chance to earn legal permanent resident status, or a ‘green card,’ in five years.

Then, if they choose, an immigrant can apply for citizenship three years later.

BIden’s plan would allow those who qualify to work, live and travel without fear of deportation during the initial five year period. He is also promising to roll back many of the restrictions on asylum claims put in place under President Donald Trump.

“Many people just want the ability to live here, to work here and to be able to travel back to their home country to visit family,” said Cesar Espinosa, the executive director of the immigrant advocacy group FIEL. “It’s important to point out we haven’t reformed our immigration system in more than 35 years.”

Espinosa is also a DACA recipient.

“I came to the US when I was five years old,” said Espinosa, who is now 35 years old. “It’s really awful to live two years at a time without really knowing if we’re going to have a future in this country even though our families are here, our kids are here, our spouses are here.”

After surviving a legal attack by the Trump administration, Biden is promising to fortify DACA. Espinosa said that could help alleviate lingering fears over the program being discontinued.

Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton leads a coalition of states challenging the legality of DACA. That suit remains pending. However, these proposed changes are only part of this issue facing our immigration system.

“If we’re going to have a system that works we have to have the manpower,” said Houston immigration attorney Carvana Cloud.

Cloud, who is in favor of immigration reform, is talking about backlogs in immigration court and with U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.

“When you think about opening up the access for more folks, that’s just going to contribute to the backlog,” said Cloud. “We have to be very, very careful how we phase that.”

Data from USCIS show at the end of the fiscal year 2020 there 942,669 applications for naturalization pending and 613,247 applications for permanent residence or to adjust status pending with the agency.

“It’s an old, antiquated system and we’ve not really taken the time to really assess what we can do to make it better,” said Cloud.

The Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse or TRAC database maintained by Syracuse University shows there more than 1.2 million cases pending in immigration court. According to TRAC, the average time nationwide to complete a case is now 863 days.

In Houston, immigration court it’s longer, more than 1,100 days.

“You no longer go by days, weeks, months, hours, but by years now,” said immigration attorney Charles Foster.

Foster has worked with Republican and Democratic administrations on immigration reform. He said any immigration reforms have to consider these backlogs.

“Objectively it’s gotten much worse in the past four years,” said Foster.

Foster is also concerned about Biden’s proposed cut-off date of January 1st, 2021 when it comes to offering a path to citizenship.

“The cut-off provision is critical,” said Foster.

Foster suggests pushing the cut-off date back four to six years.

“If the cut-off covers individuals who’ve recently entered, I think they’ll be more animosity,” said Foster. “I think people have a better understanding if someone has been here for many, many years rather than they just recently arrived.”

Biden is expected to release more information in the coming week on his plans for immigration. His 100-day moratorium on deportations already hit a legal roadblock when a federal judge temporarily blocked the action.

Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton filed a lawsuit in federal court to block the moratorium.

These types of legal challenges are why immigration advocates are only cautiously optimistic about reform. Plus, many remember pledges for immigration reform from President Barack Obama that never came to fruition.

“Once (Biden’s proposal) gets into the negotiation, there could be many things taken away and it could look totally different at the end of the day,” said Espinosa.