When Joe Biden was declared the winner of the 2020 presidential election in early November, the nationwide reaction was instantaneous, online and off. People poured into the streets to celebrate the end of Trump’s reign, turning street corners into dance parties and car horns into clarion calls of better days ahead. The joy was infectious, cathartic even, for the millions of Americans who languished under the Trump administration’s despotic tenure, especially after his administration’s disjointed efforts to contain the spread of covid-19. But for 25-year-old Sylvia, the mood was far more muted.
“Obviously I didn’t want Trump to be the president at all,” Sylvia told Jezebel during a phone call the week following Biden’s win. “But I don’t feel very happy either.”
Sylvia, whose real name is being withheld due to her status, is just one of America’s 11 million undocumented immigrants and one of the nation’s approximately 800,000 recipients of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals. DACA—an Obama-era immigration policy that allowed undocumented immigrants who were brought to the United States as children to delay deportation and receive work permits—was under constant attack during Trump’s tenure. His administration vowed to repeal the measure, and the Trump White House even wrote a memo noting that DACA recipients should prepare to leave the United States, their home.
In the summer of 2018, Jezebel spoke to three DACA recipients amidst this chaos and confusion over the program’s future. Ashleigh from Florida was stuck in status limbo for months thanks to a clerical error and worried about getting deported back to Jamaica; Manny from California was preparing for DACA’s crash and burn; and Sylvia, from Texas, questioned the very logistics of her future in the United States. Now, over two years later, a litany of court battles—including a June 2020 Supreme Court decision—blocked the Trump administration from rescinding DACA, and Trump lost his re-election bid to former Vice President Joe Biden. Following the 2020 general election, Jezebel reached out to Ashleigh, Manny, and Sylvia again to find out how they’ve weathered the pasts two years, and how they might expect their futures to change. They made it clear that their relief toward Trump’s loss came with a caveat: their trepidation toward Biden, whose tenure in the Obama administration is marred by a legacy of mass deportation and whose presidential run was light on bold immigration proposals aside from reversing Trump’s regressive policies.
While the promise of a return to the “normalcy” of the Obama era appeals to many, this vision of calm competence falls flat to those who were most vulnerable to its dysfunction.
“How can we be excited when this is kind of a return to the ineffectual centrism of the Obama years?” Manny asked.
Biden has pledged to restore the DACA program, lift the so-called Muslim Ban, and raise the nation’s cap on refugees. He has nominated Alejandro Mayorkas, a Cuban immigrant who “led the implementation” of DACA in the Obama Administration, to lead the Department of Homeland Security. Yet if the Senate remains under Republican control, many of the items on Biden’s immigration agenda will likely resort to executive actions. And given Biden’s reluctance to propose grand structural changes to the nation’s dysfunctional immigration apparatus, the DACA recipients Jezebel spoke with remain skeptical. They’ve been down this road before: Given a sneak preview of a brighter, more just future for themselves and their families, only to have politics and deportation machines mar the vision. Each apologized profusely, unnecessarily, for their pessimism, but the wariness—the exhaustion—in their voices was palpable.
“Unfortunately, I’m not a very hopeful person,” Ashleigh said. “I used to be, but America has a way of beating the hope out of you.”
In November 2019, as the Democratic primary trudged along, Biden hosted a town hall event in South Carolina. There, he butted heads with Carlos Rojas, an immigration activist who was translating a fellow activist’s question from Spanish to English: Will you immediately halt deportation if you’re elected?
“No, I will not stop all deportations,” Biden said. “I will prioritize deportations, only people who have committed a felony or serious crime.”
Rojas didn’t let the conversation stop there. He told Biden that he volunteered for President Obama in 2008 but was dismayed by the number of deportations that occurred during his tenure.
“The fact is that over those eight years, there were 3 million people that were deported and separated from their families,” Rojas said. The town hall attendees were growing restless, as was Biden. Biden has a history of lashing out during unexpected public confrontations, and this was no different.
“You should vote for Trump,” Biden suggested.
This interaction received minimal attention in the national press and likely had a limited impact on primary and general election voters. But Manny remembered. “That was a sanitized way to say ‘go fuck yourself,’” he said.
The story of Biden’s support among Latinx voters is as varied and complex as the Latinx population as a whole. This demographic is couched in one-note terms when individuals’ race, gender, religiosity, length of time in the United States, and location can have a significant impact on their political leanings. Still, the story unfolding from the 2020 election is this: While Latinx voters voted for Biden two to one over Trump nationally, and likely helped Biden turn the red state of Arizona blue, he still managed to underperform with Latinx voters in key swing states like Florida and Texas. While Florida’s Latinx population is comprised of many staunchly Republican Cuban-Americans, Biden still received approximately 250,000 fewer votes in pivotal Miami-Dade county than Hillary Clinton did in 2016. And while Texas was always a long shot for Democrats in the general, Biden underperformed significantly in Democratic-heavy regions along the Mexican border.
Trump was able to cut into a share of the Latinx vote that was considered a given to Biden, and activists, grassroots organizers, and even Democratic Party operatives have acknowledged that this is was a misstep, a consequence of taking Latinx voters for granted. Manny, who works for an immigration law firm, agrees.
“As a candidate, you have to earn the support of the people you’re trying to persuade to vote for you,” he explained, adding that Latinx voters aren’t always sincerely communicated to. “We get the Spanish platitude where someone would go up there, memorizes maybe two lines in Spanish... it’ll seem like, wow, really connecting with Latinos. But that’s not true. There’s not a whole lot of substance.” (Biden bobbing his head to “Despacito” and infusing a Bad Bunny song into a campaign ad, for instance, only goes so far; Trump was also guilty of this cheap pandering). And while Manny believes the rhetoric around Trump’s Latinx surge is indulgent, he’s not surprised by Trump receiving additional Latinx support.
Neither is Sylvia. “People thought that if America got browner, that the Republicans would fade into obscurity,” she said. “But that’s not the case.” The Republican Party has become more overtly nativist and racist by the day, and their rhetoric still appeals to non-white Americans who are culturally conservative and dubious of ostensibly leftist agendas proposed by Democratic politicians and the Democratic electorate.
Sylvia said she had to let go of her own naivete about a browner America coinciding with a more left-leaning one. Not long after Trump was first elected, a Mexican-American woman in Sylvia’s college class shrugged off Trump’s win, declaring, “Well, the Democrats ruined health care.” This isn’t just a standalone anecdote of a Latina spouting off false Republican talking points: Sylvia, who is from Houston, said she knows of several Mexican-American Republicans, especially those who have been in the United States for several generations. Polling bears some of this out: U.S.-born Mexican-American men have gravitated toward Trump, and third-generation Latinx-Americans voted for Trump in higher numbers in 2016 than they did for Mitt Romney in 2012. Plus, according to Pew Research, “Hispanic” identity begins to fade with each generation. This likely correlates with the fact that immigration isn’t necessarily a hot-button issue for Latinx-Americans across the board; many are too far removed from the immediacy of the trials and tribulations of the immigration process to prioritize it or, through assimilation, resent undocumented immigrants they believe are going about the process unfairly.
Meanwhile, Ashleigh said she didn’t see any enthusiasm for the immigrant community she comprises, which is largely Jamaican, Haitian, and Bahaman. But she said she certainly saw pro-Trump sentiment bubbling within her majority Brazilian Florida neighborhood. Most alarming, though, wasn’t necessarily being surrounded by Trump supporters, but the fact that her friend’s Peruvian family supported the man whose policies upended her life.
“When I found out, it felt like a personal insult even though I know like it had nothing to do with me, they obviously weren’t thinking of me,” Ashleigh said. “There was so much propaganda on social media, people don’t understand what socialism means, there was a lot of fear-mongering... I know that’s what really pushed them. But... I was just so hurt and disappointed.”
Ashleigh is just one of the over 619,000 undocumented Black immigrants in the United States, many of whom live in the South Florida enclaves she calls home. But in the national discourse surrounding the undocumented, Black people have been rendered invisible to the cruelty of the Trump administration despite falling prey to deportation and violent state actors like Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) at a disproportionate rate.
“Maybe everybody else forgot because they’re not in that position,” Ashleigh continued. “But I remember the kids in cages. I could have ended up back in Jamaica. Half of my family could have been deported in the little span of time that I didn’t have papers.”
Biden hopes to alleviate some of Ashleigh’s fears when he enters office in January. His campaign told Reuters that he plans to send an immigration bill to Congress on day one that includes a path to citizenship for immigrants with Temporary Protected Status. His immigration agenda also vows to “explore all legal options” to protect DACA recipients and their families “from inhumane separation.” But his verbiage surrounding ICE is vague. Biden wants to ensure that ICE doesn’t target undocumented immigrants who haven’t committed serious crimes, and wants to end ICE raids at workplaces, schools, hospitals, and the like. His official website notes that under his administration, ICE and Customs and Border Protection (CBP) will “abide by professional standards and are held accountable for inhumane treatment.”
But ICE had been the “boogeyman” since Ashleigh first arrived in the United States during the George W. Bush era, when Bush established the department in response to 9/11, and that fear continued into the Obama administration, in which Biden served as Vice President. The Obama administration’s deportation network was massive and unforgiving, and it opened the door for the Trump administration to build onto that system with their own brand of cruelty.
During a Democratic presidential debate in July 2019, Biden was challenged on the deportation of 3 million undocumented immigrants during Obama’s tenure.
Biden bristled at the insinuation that Obama’s immigration policy was at all similar to Trump’s. “To compare him to Donald Trump, I think, is absolutely bizarre,” he said.
But while Trump’s anti-immigrant policy left a tragic mark on the nation, so did Obama’s.
“One of us has learned the lessons of the past,” said Julián Castro, Obama’s former housing secretary, during the debate. During his own presidential bid, Castro proposed making illegal border crossings civil rather than criminal offenses, a proposal Biden expressed ardent opposition toward during that debate and a CNN interview that aired earlier that month.
“I think people should have to get in line,” Biden told CNN’s Chris Cuomo, before identifying asylum as the lone exception.
Months later, Biden eventually admitted that deportation under Obama was a “big mistake.”
It’s clear that aside from a divided Congress, one of Biden’s biggest hurdles when it comes to immigration policy moving forward is a lack of imagination. It’s no wonder Ashleigh, Manny, and Sylvia were enthusiastic about the presidential campaign of Sen. Bernie Sanders, which emphasized a moratorium on deportation and breaking up ICE and CBP. Ashleigh felt like Bernie wanted to enact real change, Sylvia admired the fact that his campaign reached out to immigrants in meatpacking plants, and Manny appreciated that he was unapologetic in his critiques of the immigration system at large.
But the Sanders campaign might as well have been a lifetime ago. The future is a Biden administration, and it’s his vision that will dictate the future of millions of undocumented immigrants in the coming years.
And Manny is hoping for more action than merely encouraging ICE to be more humane.
“How are we going to come out of the Trump administration and still ignore that people are living in fear?” Manny asked. “How can you how can you talk about family separation but still sort of tacitly endorsing it by ignoring [the fact that] an agency you support is doing that?”
Put another way, Manny’s challenge for an incoming Biden administration is this: “Are you going to put your money where your mouth is, or are you just going to blurt out all these platitudes about how we’re a nation of immigrants?”
The last time Jezebel spoke with Manny, he had had good news: He’s no longer undocumented. How this happened is a complicated weave of paperwork, legalese, sanctioned trips to his birthplace in Mexico, and anxious border crossings. He was tearful as he explained the hoops he had to undergo to become a green card holder, and the emotional toll of he and his sister alone visiting his grandmother in Mexico before she passed.
“It was rough because, you know, I felt like how... how come I get to go?” Manny said. “But my dad couldn’t.”
The unfairness of Manny’s newly documented status in contrast to that of his family members’ puts a damper on his excitement, but his relief is undeniable.
It’s a sense of security that, as she gets older, Sylvia fears she will never get to enjoy.
“I’m a twenty-five year old person who wants to see the world, but I can’t,” she said. Unable to travel freely, Sylvia is trapped in a country she calls home and a country that apprehensive to let her. Even though the majority of Americans and elected officials support a path to citizenship for DACA recipients like Sylvia, partisan gridlock gets in the way, usually courtesy of Republicans refusing to offer protections unless proposals such as cuts to legal immigration and increased border security were also on the table.
Sylvia lives her life as a bargaining chip for those who will never have to worry about deportation, who never have to worry if their parents may not come back from that trip to the store, who never have to worry about being villainzed for daring to exist.
“[Americans] see undocumented people probably every day, and they’re not necessarily the people that are outside of a Home Depot waiting to get a job,” Sylvia said. “Nobody has a sign that says ‘I’m undocumented.’ Like, even people that you’re friends with... you might not even know because they don’t tell anybody. Our value isn’t just because we work... we’re just human and we deserve to be treated like such.”
And Ashleigh wants simple human comforts. She’s back in school for the first time in years. She’s studying film, but is unsure what she wants to do after getting her bachelor’s degree.
“Right now, I feel like I don’t even have dreams of my own anymore,” Ashleigh said. “I just work... I graduate in April and hopefully I can get a job with health care and insurance and then, God forbid anything happens to my mom, I can take care of my siblings.”
With Trump on his way out, Ashleigh admits she’s at least able to breathe a little easier, but that’s not saying much
“One thing his administration taught me is like they can change the world—or at least my world—with the power of one fucking tweet,” she said. “So, yeah, I can breathe easier knowing he’s not there, but I’m not holding my breath for anyone.”
Manny echoed this sentiment.
“This plight knows no [political] party,” he said. “We’ve been let down by everybody.”
In the months ahead, they’ll know if their cynicism was predictive, whether Biden turns out to be just another Democratic politician offering the undocumented community some meager wins with a side of state violence. Regardless of the months ahead, however, America’s millions of undocumented will brace themselves for whatever policy is thrown their way.
“America is our home for better or worse,” Sylvia said. “I know they want us to not be here, but this is our home.”