New Administration Creates Hope for Arkansas Immigrants, Refugees

President Biden announced several new immigration policies soon after taking office this week.

Immigration Reform

President Joe Biden wasted no time getting to work after being sworn into office Jan. 20. The president signed more than a dozen executive orders, memorandums and proclamations on his first day and several of them address immigration reform.

One memo calls on the Secretary of Homeland Security, in consultation with the Attorney General, to take action to preserve and fortify the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals or DACA program. Karla Palma is a DACA recipient living in Fort Smith and says the announcement is a welcome change. 

“Having a new administration who I know will not be targeting the DREAMers or the Hispanic community is obviously just a sigh of relief,” Palma says. “It’s a breath of fresh air to not have a constant target on your back or to not have that fear that at any time when he gets upset over something, that we get the backlash of whatever he’s upset about.”

President Biden is proposing legislation that would create a pathway to citizenship for millions of people living in the United States without documentation. Sen. Bob Menendez, a Democrat from New Jersey, is set to unveil the U.S. Citizenship Act of 2021, according to WHYYThe anticipated legislation is also a source of hope for Palma.

“It’s good to know that at least we have the support of this new administration and there’s a possible pathway to citizenship,” she says.

The U.S. Department of Homeland Security is making its own changes and on Inauguration Day announced a 100-day moratorium on deportations for certain noncitizens beginning Jan. 22. The pause in removals is to ensure DHS has a “fair and effective immigration enforcement system focused on protecting national security, border security and public safety,” according to a memo signed by Acting DHS Secretary David Pekoske.

The suspension of deportations applies to any noncitizen present in the U.S. when the directive takes effect with some exceptions including people who were not physically present in the country prior to Nov. 1, 2020 or anyone who who poses a threat to national security.

Immigrant rights activists expect to see a decline in deportations and say the moratorium will give immigrants time to connect with attorneys or other legal resources to make sure they are taking the correct steps to stay in the country. 

In addition to supporting immigrants currently residing in the United States, the new administration is implementing measures to help refugees trying to immigrate here. President Biden has signed a proclamation ending discriminatory bans on entry into the country. The proclamation revokes executive orders and presidential proclamations by the previous administration that prevented individuals from primarily Muslim countries and later, largely African countries, from entering the United States.

Francisco Ayala is a case manager at Canopy Northwest Arkansas, a refugee resettlement nonprofit organization. The agency has resettled refugees from Africa, Europe and South America and was impacted by the previous administration’s so-called “Muslim ban.” 

Things won’t change much over the next two months, but after that, Ayala says they expect to have at least 1 or 2 cases a week. Most of the refugees will be from Syria and Ayala says one man and his children have been waiting four years to come here. 

“We’re now preparing for that — getting more volunteers, trying to get more funds — but most importantly, connecting with the community telling them that those people that are coming, they are coming in peace,” Ayala says. “They are coming to make our life richer.” 

The refugees have been vetted and screened and Ayala says there is nothing wrong with them, otherwise the U.S. government would never allow them to come here. While some people may have fears about the arrival of refugees, Ayala says his experience helping immigrants with resettlement has been a positive one.

“We have no complaint with Northwest Arkansas, we have no complaints with Arkansas itself,” he says. “People have this bad image of the South, but no. The community, the white community has been so welcoming that we have been overwhelmed sometimes.”

Liberian refugees are also receiving support from the new administration. President Biden signed a memorandum reinstating Deferred Enforcement Departure for Liberians. The United States first provided a safe haven in 1991 for Liberian refugees who fled their country as a result of armed conflict and widespread civil strife.

Antoinette Grajeda
Antoinette Grajeda

Antoinette Grajeda is an Arkansas-based journalist. She has covered race, culture, politics, health, education and the arts for NPR affiliates as well as print and digital publications since 2007.