Susan Roche is the executive director of the Immigrant Legal Advocacy Project in Portland. Credit: Troy R. Bennett / BDN

PORTLAND, Maine — Ever since she signed on with the Immigrant Legal Advocacy Project 20 years ago, Sue Roche has hoped for comprehensive immigration reform.

Now, with roughly a week to go before President-elect Joe Biden’s inauguration, the nonprofit’s executive director hopes the incoming administration can not only “reverse the damage” that’s been done the last four years, but reform the structural programs with the U.S. immigration system she’s been fighting since she started.

“I think what’s happened in the last four years really shined a light on all the problems and bad things that could happen under the system that we have,” Roche said.

Immigration has always been a political lightning rod, but it seemed to be the “highest priority” under the Trump administration, according to Roche. Federal immigration officials weren’t just trying to crack down on unauthorized immigrants, they “were really trying to decimate our entire legal immigration processes as well.”

Under the Trump administration, Roche saw federal agencies try to restrict families from gaining residency, make it harder for low-income people to sponsor family members to get legal status, and make it harder for people fleeing persecution in their home countries to get asylum.

That trend should shift as Biden has signaled an intention to reverse several planks of Trump’s immigration policy. Biden could enact meaningful immigration reform through executive order, Roche said, such as reversing the travel bans affecting 13 countries, restoring green card and guest-worker programs, tightening the functions of immigration agencies and court processes, and resetting the country’s annual refugee admissions cap, which dropped to historic lows under Trump despite higher numbers of refugees around the globe since World War II, according to the Pew Research Center.

Biden has set a goal to raise the cap to admit 125,000 refugees annually, restoring the number to Obama-era levels after Trump capped the limit at 15,000. That would have an effect on Maine’s refugee population.

From 2013 to 2016, Maine received an annual average of 448 primary refugees — those who arrived directly from a country of asylum. In the past four years, that average dropped to 146, including just 46 in 2020 when the U.S. accepted fewer than 12,000 refugees, according to Catholic Charities refugee resettlement program.

Despite Democrats’ control of Congress and promises from Biden to enact reforms, those who work in immigration don’t expect things to change overnight.

Refugee advocates are estimating that the U.S. could accept roughly 30,000 refugees in 2021 as systems rebuild capacity, according to Hannah DeAngelis, director of refugee and immigration services at Catholic Charities.

In order to achieve lasting immigration reform, Biden would need congressional approval — a prospect that became more likely following Georgia’s runoff elections last week.

The Trump administration also made a flurry of changes to the immigration court process for asylum seekers — a demographic that notably included hundreds of African migrant families who traveled to Portland through Central and South America to escape war-torn regions in Angola and the Democratic Republic of Congo. That group, which arrived in waves over the summer of 2019, faced a one-year filing process that expired during the pandemic.

But it took “a very long time” for those asylum seekers’ cases to get filed, a necessary step for them to receive a hearing in immigration court, Roche said. When they finally were filed, the hearings were arbitrarily scheduled to take place at courts around the U.S. Lawyers needed to help Maine’s asylum seekers to reschedule their hearings in Boston, the nearest immigration court, in order for their cases to be heard.

Roche imagines that most asylum seekers who arrived in the summer of 2019 have not even had a hearing on their asylum claim yet.

A large community that will really be impacted will be the people who have Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) and temporary protected status, because those are both programs that the Trump administration was attempting to abolish.

Biden has said that he wants to continue the DACA program that launched under President Obama in 2012. DACA allows undocumented people who were brought to the U.S. as children to apply for deferrals from deportation. There were 95 DACA recipients in Maine as of 2017.

Now that Democrats hold the Senate, Biden has a clearer road to strengthening DACA, giving a pathway to citizenship for individuals who have been living and paying taxes in Maine communities for years, Roche said.

Roche hopes the new administration will also quiet the anti-immigrant rhetoric of the Trump Administration. Though plenty in Maine worked to provide welcoming communities to those born outside of the U.S., the anti-immigration sentiment that surfaced over the past several years left “a climate of fear and anxiety” in the immigrant community.

“People were constantly afraid that something was going to change so that they would no longer be able to stay here, and that they might be sent back to a country where it’s unsafe, where they would be separated from their families and taken away from the lives that they’ve built,” Roche said.

Immigration lawyers like Roche say the system had been backlogged even before the Trump administration’s damage. Keeping up with the Trump administration wore them out, shifting immigration agencies’ focus from resettlement practice to surviving and retaining staff expertise. Under a new presidency, she hopes they can get to work.

“There’s just so much work that will need to be done,” Roche said.