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‘The hopes are huge’: Philly-area immigrants are optimistic, if cautious, about a Biden presidency

There’s a lot Joe Biden can do quickly. Many of the Trump administration’s harshest anti-immigration policies were enacted by executive order, not legislation, and can be reversed in the same way.

Oneita and Clive Thompson, an undocumented Jamaican couple,  took sanctuary inside the Tabernacle United Church in West Philadelphia in late September. It's their second church during two years of living in sanctuary to avoid deportation.
Oneita and Clive Thompson, an undocumented Jamaican couple, took sanctuary inside the Tabernacle United Church in West Philadelphia in late September. It's their second church during two years of living in sanctuary to avoid deportation.Read moreDavid Maialetti / File Photograph

As Oneita Thompson jumped and cheered in the moments after Joe Biden won the presidency, her heart filled with a fresh emotion: hope.

Hope for freedom from the confinement of church walls, where she and her family have lived for more than two years in sanctuary to avoid deportation to Jamaica. Hope that soon they’ll be sitting together at the dinner table in their South Jersey home. Hope that she and her husband, Clive, can return to the jobs they held for years, before Donald Trump took office and put the undocumented couple on a fast track to removal.

“I feel hopeful that liberation has come,” Thompson, 48, said in a phone interview from the Tabernacle United Church in University City. “Sanctuary is going to be in the past.”

This week, immigrants, allies, and advocates in the Philadelphia region shared real, if measured, optimism for the future, pointing out that there’s a lot Biden can do quickly.

Many of the Trump administration’s harshest policies were enacted by executive order, not legislation, and can be reversed in the same way. Comprehensive reform and overhaul of the nation’s broken immigration system is far more difficult, and would require consent not just from Democrats in the House but from what is, for now, a Republican-controlled Senate.

At the least, they say, the change in administrations will end the Oval Office demonization of immigrants and their families, along with the sudden decrees and rule changes that made it harder for people to come, stay, and live safely.

“We get to catch a breath,” said Blanca Pacheco, who immigrated from Ecuador two decades ago and now is codirector of New Sanctuary Movement of Philadelphia, an immigrant support group. “I cried a lot. I didn’t realize how much weight, and physical abuse and manipulation, this administration has put on our shoulders.”

» READ MORE: After two years in Philly church sanctuary, an undocumented immigrant family departs — but not to freedom

Biden’s win doesn’t mean she and others can ease up on their advocacy, she said. Biden was, after all, vice president to “the deporter-in-chief,” Barack Obama, who removed far more migrants than Trump.

Under Biden, “we could still be crushed, but with a smile,” Pacheco said.

Biden says otherwise. He’s pledged that in his first 100 days in office he will:

  1. End separations of parents from their children at the southern border. Lawyers who were working last month to find the mothers and fathers of 545 children split by the administration’s “zero tolerance” policy now say the number is 666.

  2. Rescind the ban on travel from several Muslim-majority countries to the United States, enacted in January 2017.

  3. Reinstate DACA, the Obama administration initiative that allows 700,000 young people brought to the country as undocumented children to live and work here without fear of deportation. Biden also wants to create a path to citizenship for DACA recipients and their parents. Pennsylvania is home to 4,620 DACA-holders and New Jersey to 16,832, according to the Migration Policy Institute.

  4. End restrictions on access to asylum, which for more than half a century has been granted to those who could be harmed in their homelands. That includes ending the Trump administration’s routine denials for people who suffered domestic and gang violence. And it would cancel the “Remain in Mexico” policy, which has stranded more than 67,000 asylum-seekers in often dangerous border lands while their cases proceed in the United States.

  5. End the “national emergency” under which the Trump administration has shifted billions of dollars from the Defense Department to pay for construction of a wall at the Mexican border. Already there are calls to tear down what’s been built.

  6. Redirect immigration enforcement, away from undocumented people who are peacefully living and working in the United States and toward those convicted of serious crimes.

  7. Reverse the “public charge” rule, under which Trump immigration officials could base visa and permanent-residency decisions on migrants' income and their potential need for government services such as food stamps or Medicaid.

“The conversation has been about ‘them’ draining what ‘we’ have, not coming and contributing vibrantly, economically, socially,” said Rutgers University sociologist Catherine Lee, who looks to Biden to reset the national narrative, to celebrate anew the country’s historic role as a beacon. “It’s about highlighting what we already know: Immigrants are your neighbors, your teachers, your doctors, your kids' soccer coach.”

In Philadelphia, immigration is a driver of population growth and business development. More than a quarter of all residents in recent years, about 390,000 people, were either immigrants or U.S.-born natives with immigrant parents, according to a 2018 study by the Pew Charitable Trusts.

» READ MORE: Undocumented immigrants and churches that give them sanctuary face breaking points

President Trump has warred against Philadelphia’s “sanctuary city” policies, insisting that Mayor Jim Kenney’s administration must help enforce U.S. immigration laws — an argument rejected by a federal judge in 2018. Two weeks before the election, acting Homeland Security Secretary Chad Wolf and acting ICE Director Tony Pham came to Philadelphia to tout the arrests of 170 immigrants in sanctuary cities nationwide and to criticize the Kenney administration for “reckless” policies that, they said, free dangerous immigrants from custody.

The mayor has said that the city obeys all local, state, and federal laws and that judges, not ICE administrators, decide when people are to be freed from jail.

Before Trump took office, “we never encountered a government that viscerally hated our clients, and made them feel hated,” said Cathryn Miller-Wilson, executive director of HIAS Pennsylvania, which provides legal and resettlement services to immigrants, refugees, and asylum-seekers. “How do you assure a client, ‘We’re going to do the best we can, we’re here to protect you,’ when the government is saying, ‘We want everybody out'?”

Now, she said, “The hopes are huge.”

HIAS Pennsylvania is planning an online Martin Luther King Jr. Day conference to develop new strategies for action.

» READ MORE: A question for Joe Biden from an undocumented family in Philly church sanctuary: Will you free us?

The stakes can be life-and-death for people who face deportation to dangerous homelands. That includes half a dozen immigrant families currently confined at the Berks County detention center, a 96-bed ICE lockup that holds mothers, fathers, and children who are pursuing court cases to stay in the country.

“I expect a whole lot, and I’ll probably be humbled by how little we’ll get,” said Bridget Cambria, who represents the families as executive director of ALDEA – The People’s Justice Center in Reading. “It’s questionable what a president on his own can do to fix it.”

Clive and Oneita Thompson fled their homeland in 2004 after gang members burned their farm and threatened to kill them. The U.S. government denied them asylum yet allowed them to stay on, hold jobs, pay taxes, buy a house, and raise seven children. That changed when the Trump administration took power.

Oneita has fresh hope for the start of a step-by-step process toward her family’s permanent life in this country, starting with a stay of deportation that would allow them to leave church sanctuary.

“A weight has been lifted off our shoulder,” she said. “A new administration — you feel like there’s a light, a real light ahead.”