President Biden prioritizes immigration reform. Here’s why that’s great for California


After four years of the Trump administration’s hyper-aggressive immigration measures, Joe Biden ran for president promising dramatic change to U.S. immigration law and enforcement. He has quickly moved to change the direction of the nation’s immigration policies. Whether Biden ultimately succeeds will have a big impact on California, which has the largest population of immigrants of any state.

In his first days in office, Biden presented an immigration reform proposal with a path to legalization for undocumented immigrants ; eliminated the Muslim ban ; provided relief for recipients of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrival (DACA) policy and attempted to establish a deportation moratorium . By so doing, Biden has made it clear that immigration is a top priority.

California, with 11 million immigrants (25% of the nation’s foreign-born persons) and a need for labor in the agricultural industry, stands to richly benefit from immigration reform. Growers have consistently complained about the inability to find a reliable supply of labor. A path to legalization, as well as possible guest worker programs, could provide that labor. A durable labor force made possible by immigration reform would benefit the state’s economy and ensure that fruit, vegetables and dairy products are available throughout the pandemic.

But as with many complex issues, the most important and durable changes to immigration laws will be the most difficult to secure. Presidential actions will only get the nation so far. What is needed is a meaningful and far-reaching reform of the immigration laws, not tinkering at the margins in ways that will not remedy the serious problems in the nation’s immigration system.

Although the near-universal assessment is that the current immigration system is “broken,” Congress has for decades failed to pass immigration reform. Biden will need to rely on his decades of experience as a Senator to persuade Congress to pass reform. Whether through a single bill or through several, only Congress can accomplish comprehensive immigration reform, creating a path to legalization for undocumented immigrants that more closely aligns with the nation’s labor needs.

By making reform a priority, Biden is avoiding the mistake of President Barack Obama, who put off immigration reform until his second term. Instead, during his first term, the Obama administration escalated removal efforts so that record numbers of noncitizens — roughly 400,000 — were removed each year, earning the moniker “ deporter-in-chief ” from some immigrant rights advocates.

To secure immigration reform, a bipartisan approach will be necessary. The truth is that Republicans stand to benefit from immigration reform. That’s why, in the past, Republican Senators Marco Rubio and Lindsay Graham have supported immigration reform. Politically, Trump’s heartless approach to immigration enforcement chased Latinos away in droves. Republican candidates in swing states like Arizona, Florida and Texas cannot write off the Latino vote. Moreover, there are economic gains to be secured through immigration reform, with employers in agriculture, construction and service industries clamoring for immigrant workers.

The deal-breaker may be the creation of a path to legalization for undocumented immigrants. Decried as an “amnesty” by opponents, immigrant rights activists insist on a path to legalization. Realistically, we cannot deport 11 million undocumented immigrants. As President George W. Bush observed, such a massive removal campaign would cost billions of dollars, destroy communities and devastate the economy. A pathway to legalization will undoubtedly require considerable discussion and debate.

Put simply, Biden set the table for immigration reform on day one of his presidency. Still, an incredible amount of work must be done. As Californians, we will be directly affected by immigration reform and should not stand on the sidelines.

About The Author

Kevin Johnson is dean of the University of California, Davis School of Law. Reach him at

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