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A year after mobilizing for Biden, young supporters feel let down on immigration

Kevin Dietsch, Getty Images
Getty Images
Immigration activists rally near the White House on Oct. 7, 2021. The group demonstrated for immigration reform and urged President Biden to authorize a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants.

President Biden took swift action on his first day in office and reversed several of his predecessor's harsh immigration policies.

He signed an executive order to halt construction of the southern border wall, lifted a travel ban on several predominantly Muslim countries, and unveiled a plan to put millions of undocumented immigrants on a path to citizenship.

But a year later, that legislation has gone nowhere and many of his other efforts have stalled, frustrating supporters and energizing opponents ahead of midterm elections.

"In the beginning, we really had him like at this pedestal, like he's going to do so much for us," said Yair Castellanos, a 20-year-old undocumented immigrant who works as a community organizer.

From their home in North Carolina, Castellanos and his family watched Biden's inauguration with a sense of relief. He thought maybe he'd have a better chance to go to college with Biden in office. He hoped Biden would fight for a path to citizenship and also push for other protections, like work permits for him and his parents.

"And then just little things like, no, no reform coming out, nothing being pushed," Castellanos said. "No little steps like the license or the permits. No...anything...really."

Young people like Castellanos helped mobilize voters for Biden, even when they couldn't vote themselves. Many now feel let down by Biden and the Democrats, who they feel haven't pushed hard enough to deliver on the promises made.

Greisa Martínez Rosas, executive director of United We Dream, says Democrats can't treat young people as an ATM for votes "without feeling that they have to work for it."

Martínez says Democrats need to fight harder for legislation to protect the estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants in the country, and she points to key parts of former President Donald Trump's policies that Biden has kept in place, including a pandemic order allowing the U.S. to turn away most migrants, and another requiring asylum seekers to remain in Mexico until their court dates.

"It's easy to promise us something when we're in the midst of a difficult and historic moment like the Trump administration," she said. "But what really defines someone's character is what they're able to do beyond their words and actually deliver."

The Biden administration has cited the ongoing pandemic for keeping the health policy, known as Title 42, and argues the courts prevented the administration from ending the so-called Remain in Mexico policy.

White House officials say they're continuing to work on measures that would protect and provide work permits for families like Castellanos'.

White House spokesman Vedant Patel said Biden reversed many of the previous administration's harmful policies, including ending the travel ban on Muslim-majority countries and scrapping Trump's rule that made it harder for people receiving government benefits to obtain green cards. He also created a task force to help reunite families separated by the Trump administration.

"The President has made clear that restoring order, fairness, and humanity to our immigration system are priorities for this Administration," Patel told NPR in a statement. "Our immigration system is outdated and in bad need of reform; But this Administration is committed to working day in and day out to provide relief to immigrants and bring our immigration system into the 21st century."

The reality is that the Biden administration came in with very high expectations, says Ali Noorani of the National Immigration Forum. He said steps the administration has taken on the issue, like focusing immigration enforcement on public safety threats, will lead to more improvements in the future.

But, with the midterms approaching, Noorani is also urging the administration to think beyond its base and reach out to more independent voters — and even some conservatives — who opposed Trump's harsh immigration policies but still have concerns about the southern border.

"President Biden needs to return to those voters and say, 'You know what? I'm going to advance constructive, pragmatic solutions in immigration,' " Noorani said. "And not address immigration as if it's only an issue of concern or importance to the left."

And that's where Republicans also see an opportunity.

Leading Republicans, like Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, have been traveling to the border and making the issue a signature part of their election or reelection campaigns.

They blame the surge of migrants at the border on Biden's approach, including rolling back some of Trump's border policies.

Biden's challenges are reflected in surveys. A recent Morning Consult/Politico poll found that 56% of registered voters disapprove of how Biden has handled immigration, while a CNBC/Change Research Pollfound that 69% disapprove of his handling of the issue.

Scott Jennings, a GOP strategist who's advised Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, says immigration is a chance for Republicans to draw a "bright line."

"Biden campaigned as a competent moderate — 'You can trust me, the adults are back in charge' — you know, that sort of vibe," Jennings said. "And I don't think anybody looking at the border is saying, 'Yeah, the adults are back in charge.' "

As for Castellanos, he's just trying to make the best of the situation he has. He knows things could be worse if Trump were still in office — or if he runs again.

"If Trump comes back in, that's going to be that pressure that was on for those four years of, 'Oh no, what if one day my mom is driving and she gets pulled over, like I may never see her again?' " Castellanos said. "Whereas if maybe Biden is still in the presidency, I'm not as fearful of that happening."
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