Democratic President Joe Biden's fast motions to reform federal immigration policy will have a significant impact on Arizona, which has a sizable population of undocumented immigrants.
Among a flurry of executive orders that Biden signed was a directive to protect the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program for undocumented immigrants who were brought to the U.S. as children. His administration has also ordered that deportations and immigration-related arrests be curtailed.
The executive order calls on federal officials to "preserve and fortify" the DACA program. Meanwhile, a separate memo authored by David Pekoske, acting secretary of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), directs U.S. immigration agencies to focus on enforcement based on "protecting national security, border security, and public safety." People who have engaged in or are suspected of terrorism or espionage will be prioritized by immigration authorities, as well as individuals apprehended at the border or ports of entry while trying to enter the U.S. illegally, and people who have been convicted of an "'aggravated felony'" and were released from prison or jail, the memo states. The directive also mandated a "review of policies and practices concerning immigration enforcement" and a "100-day pause on certain removals."
Arizona was home to almost 24,000 DACA recipients in 2020, according to the American Immigration Council, a pro-immigration nonprofit group. As of 2016, around 4 percent of the state's population was undocumented.
Local pro-immigration advocates are pleased about the policy changes.
"He’s on Day One showing that he can use his executive power. I think that’s awesome, that’s what was needed in our community," said Karina Ruiz De Diaz, executive director of the Arizona Dream Act Coalition. "It’s really touching human lives. We’re very encouraged. We want to encourage him to continue to listen to immigrants."
The new policies are a reversal of the anti-immigration posture of former Republican President Donald Trump, whose administration aggressively pursued immigration-related arrests and deportations. Trump also sought to eliminate the DACA program entirely, though he was hindered by the U.S. Supreme Court.
However, even with Biden's executive order, there are still legal threats to DACA. A case filed by Texas and eight other states that seeks to end the program is still undecided in federal court. Ruiz De Diaz said that current DACA recipients and those who may be eligible for the program should keep pursuing it regardless.
"People should continue renewing, those who have it. Those who can apply should continue to apply for it. It’s a benefit that it is still available for new applicants," she said.
In another executive order, Biden halted further construction of Trump's controversial southern border wall. The border wall project, which was pursued relentlessly by the Trump administration, was a hot-button issue in Arizona, where over 200 miles of wall were constructed. Environmental activists criticized the project due to the damage the construction caused to delicate ecosystems in areas like the San Bernardino National Wildlife Refuge and Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument. The Tohono O'odham Nation also accused the project of damaging sacred cultural sites.
Biden plans to send sweeping immigration policy reform legislation to Congress that would provide a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrations — a policy goal that has eluded past politicians.
Republican Arizona Governor Doug Ducey told the Arizona Republic that he while he broadly supports Biden's push for immigration reform and agrees that undocumented immigrants who were brought to the U.S. as children should be able to become citizens, he's hesitant about the rest of the proposal.
"The devil is in the details," he said.
“Kids that went to high school in Arizona are Arizona kids, and they should have the same opportunities as other Arizona kids,” Ducey said. “To me, that's an easier subject than the subjects beyond that. But I do think it's something that we should tackle. I think it falls into the category of important and urgent, and I would like to tie it to border security.”