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A Window of Opportunity Is Opening to Improve Immigrant Health: A Research and Practice Agenda

Dr. Steven Wallace, UCLA Fielding School of Public Health professor of community health sciences, co-authored a commentary in the American Journal of Public Health on the Biden Administration's immigration policies and public health

Wednesday, February 10, 2021

As a new presidential administration begins, the immigration policymaking that unfolds will affect the nation’s immigration climate and immigrant health for years to come. In recent years, public health scholarship has documented that immigration policy is health policy. Restrictive enforcement and deportation policies can harm health through increased stress and social exclusions based on race and citizenship status. Inclusive policies granting legal status and rights can promote health by extending access to the safety net and opportunities and creating welcoming environments. This work is a reminder of our field’s role in contributing to the nation’s social and political immigration climate as we work toward health equity.

While the new Biden administration may undo recent policies that have excluded and threatened many immigrants, political expedience may lead them and other policymakers to view policy compromises of past administrations as acceptable goals. Candidate Biden supported inclusive immigration policies but also condoned harmful policies of the Obama era. His platform acknowledged "the pain felt by every family . . . that has had a loved one removed from the country," but touted the Obama–Biden administration’s "steps to prioritize enforcement resources on removing threats to national security and public safety, not families," which led to historically high levels of deportations.

President Biden can quickly cancel many of Trump’s 400-plus immigration executive actions, but undoing policies enacted through regulatory mechanisms, such as the new public charge rules, will require time and may face pushback through the courts. Immigration legislation is difficult to pass even when the House, Senate, and presidency are controlled by the same party; the likelihood of a divided federal government in coming years makes immigration legislation even more challenging. Furthermore, ongoing divisions over immigrant rights in state-houses and among voters — including within immigrant communities — may discourage policymakers from bold, inclusive action.