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Year in Review: Weighing policies on policing and immigration

Immigration turmoil, police refunding, and drug decriminalization were top issues in 2021


Haitian migrants wade across the Rio Grande from Del Rio, Texas, to Ciudad Acuña, Mexico, on Sept. 19 to avoid U.S. deportation ​to Haiti. Associated Press/Photo by Felix Marquez, file

Year in Review: Weighing policies on policing and immigration

The year 2021 saw the continued fallout of stories that began in 2020. Homicides continued to rise in many major cities, creating a high-stakes backdrop for conversations about police reform. Some of the cases that prompted the push for reform last year—such as the deaths of George Floyd and Ahmaud Arbery—came to trial this year. President Joe Biden took office and immediately had to deal with an immigration crisis of his own, as migrants once again flooded the southern border to request asylum. Meanwhile, despite the turmoil of political clashes and pandemic contingencies, Christian nonprofits still did the hard work of helping the poor.

Biden’s own immigration crisis

President Biden campaigned on promises of a compassionate immigration system, but another tidal wave of asylum-seekers at the southern border tested those promises once he took office. A key feature in this wave: large numbers of unaccompanied children. Migrants claimed they made the dangerous trek from their home countries after hearing the border was open. A stark example of the humanitarian crisis came when thousands of Haitian migrants gathered outside one tiny Texas border town in just a few days in September. With some Americans worried the crowd of migrants would bring the coronavirus into the United States, the Biden administration used a public health rule known as Title 42 to expel migrants immediately, despite the president’s earlier promise to end the practice, which began under President Donald Trump. Biden also had promised to end Trump’s Migrant Protection Protocols policy, also known as “Remain in Mexico,” but a court ordered him to resume it as lawsuits played out. Throughout 2021, the search for the parents of immigrant children separated from their families under Trump’s zero tolerance policy crawled forward. Many Republicans were outraged when media reported the Biden administration was considering paying hundreds of thousands of dollars in damages to the separated families. Near the end of the year, the government still had not reached a settlement agreement.

Defund and refund

Early in the year, many politicians across the country heeded 2020 calls for police reform: Illinois lawmakers overhauled the state’s bail system, to the chagrin of police officers. New York City ended qualified immunity for officers in an attempt to increase accountability. Several cities experimented with sending social workers to certain emergency calls, with or without police officers. But as the year progressed, a troubling rise in homicide rates continued. Some cities that cut back police department budgets under pressure from “Defund the police” activists last year later increased those budgets. But fewer applicants and many retirements left police departments stretched thin, and remaining officers said they felt unsupported by their city leaders. Congress unsuccessfully attempted its own version of police reform, and President Biden’s Justice Department opened multiple “pattern or practice” investigations to pressure police departments it suspected of violating citizens’ rights. Meanwhile, Texas passed reforms designed to prevent violent criminals from getting out jail on bail.

Questions of vaccine equity

As COVID-19 vaccines became available, some of the people most at risk from the contagious disease—such as prisoners and homeless people living in shelters—had to wait until later stages of state distribution plans. Advocates pushed for state governments to prioritize these vulnerable groups, but governors differed in their responses. Even when shots were available, workers struggled to administer them to the homeless, and some residents of minority communities either could not access the shots or feared getting them.

Shot in the arm for welfare

The government expanded Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program funds for needy families as the pandemic dragged on, and it also continued providing expanded unemployment benefits far into 2021. Several states opted to end the enhanced benefits early to help their job markets recover, though job openings still outnumber job-seekers nationwide. With all the rapidly expanded welfare programs came increased fraud. Several cities experimented with guaranteed income, and the federal government considered raising the minimum wage.

Decriminalizing drugs

A controversial trend toward “harm reduction” approaches to drug addiction continued this year. California lawmakers considered reducing legal penalties for drug users and opening safe injection sites where users could get high in a supervised setting. Some blamed an HIV outbreak in West Virginia on officials who canceled a needle exchange program there. Philadelphia tried to open the nation’s first safe injection site, but a court blocked it. Later this year, New York succeeded in opening two sites where drug users could inject heroin under medical supervision. Oregon decriminalized small amounts of hard drugs beginning in February, but little data exists to show the success of its new system.

Hope Awards 2021

Nonprofits saw both waves of generosity and seasons of lean giving during the pandemic. WORLD’s 2021 Hope Awards for Effective Compassion highlight ministries on the West Coast: One finalist was in Washington state, and three were in California. The grand prize winner was Safe Harbor Free Clinic in Stanwood, Wash. Reporter Sophia Lee also visited Westside Ministries in Turlock, Calif., a program that teaches poor kids the gospel, along with character and life skills. At Christian Encounter Ministries in Grass Valley, staff members build relationships with troubled youth and help them get back on track. East County Transitional Living Center in El Cajon provides a structured environment where homeless people can relearn how to live life and have a relationship with God.


Charissa Koh

Charissa is a WORLD reporter who often writes about poverty-fighting and criminal justice. She resides with her family in Atlanta.

@CharissaKoh

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