Moving forward from hate: What Biden’s election means for local immigrants and refugees

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On Nov. 8, 2016, America elected a president who called Mexicans rapists and criminals, a president who perpetuated “birther” conspiracies about Barack Obama, and who campaigned on the promise of building a massive border wall.

For many of the Seattleites who are among King County’s rapidly growing immigrant population — and who are from historically marginalized communities — it was a surreal moment marked by anxiety, fear, and sadness. 

Sahar Fathi, the policy director for Washington state Attorney General Bob Ferguson, remembers those feelings well. As an Iranian American Muslim, she knows what it’s like to be singled out for being different. And, as an attorney who volunteered her time in the wake of the 2017 Muslim travel ban, she witnessed the immediate impact of President Trump’s rhetoric and policies.

“They didn’t have a lot of Farsi-speaking attorneys (at Sea-Tac Airport),” Fathi said. “So I would go at 4 in the morning before work and sit and wait for flights to come in and talk to impacted families about their fears.”

Nearly four years later, things are set to change. President-elect Joe Biden has promised to reverse many of Trump’s immigration policies. And Kamala Harris’ history-making rise to vice president has inspired people of all backgrounds. (“She was the most exciting part of the campaign for me,” says Fathi, who owns a Kamala Harris bobble-head doll.)

But much work remains to be done. With control of the Senate still up for grabs, and the vitriol and hate of the past four years still simmering, local advocates for immigrants and refugees are settling in for a long road of healing and rebuilding.

Policy priorities

When it comes to undoing the harmful policies of the past four years, some efforts will be easier than others, says Rich Stolz, executive director of OneAmerica, our state’s largest immigrant and refugee advocacy organization.

OneAmerica is already working with its allies in D.C. to push for changes that could be executive actions taken by the Biden administration: reversal of the Muslim travel ban, restoring DACA, and raising the cap on the number of refugees admitted to the U.S. Stolz said Biden has also signaled he wants to move away from privatized immigration detention — something that could have a direct impact on the Northwest Detention Center in Tacoma. 

Other changes could be more complicated. Under Trump, many immigration-related federal agencies have become more focused on enforcement, Stolz said. One result of that shift: Visa decisions are taking longer, and there’s a backlog of citizenship and naturalization cases at U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS).

“Trump was very good at driving anyone with compassion out of ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement), out of Customs and Borders Protection — and even out of USCIS,” Stolz said. “There are thousands of people in Washington state that are still in limbo waiting to hear what happens to their case.” 

Systemic immigration reform will be an especially big challenge, given the likely makeup of the U.S. Senate. 

“But we still have to try, because so many lives and families depend on it,” Stolz said.

The power of voting

No matter what happens on the national stage, Fathi and Stolz said the road to undoing the hate and fear experienced by many immigrants and refugees starts on the ground in local communities. And the first step, Fathi said, is acknowledging that racism and nativism won’t leave our country when Biden and Harris take office on Jan. 20.

“We are at a precipice in this country where we are beginning to uncover this deep racism at the roots of our policies, our laws — everything is embedded in racism,” said Fathi. “And (Trump) is like one head of Medusa. We have a lot more to go. There’s so much work to do.”

For Stolz and OneAmerica, Biden’s victory underscored the importance of voting and making immigrants feel like they have a role in shaping our democracy. That’s often harder to achieve in local elections. Stolz pointed to low voter turnout among Latinx communities in Eastern Washington as an example of lingering challenges at the local level.

“You can create the best systems, and they still won’t work if people don’t vote,” he said. “We need to do everything we can to make sure that people think their votes make a difference.”

By Caitlin Moran
Caitlin writes newsletters and stories for The Evergrey. She's worked as a journalist in and around Seattle since 2010 and is a proud resident of Capitol Hill's Summit Slope neighborhood.