From immigration to criminal justice reform, President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris’ administration is set to push an agenda vastly different from that of former President Donald Trump. Students and professors are largely optimistic about the new administration and look forward to Biden reversing a number of Trump-era policies — including in the areas of student loan debt, education, and the environment.
College and Wharton junior Saranya Das Sharma, an international student from India and previous Marketing Manager of The Daily Pennsylvanian, said she is especially pleased with Biden’s plan to reform much of the H-1B visa system. Trump, a 1968 Wharton graduate, had previously tweaked the system to require employers to pay H-1B workers significantly higher wages, and, for some workers, narrowed the potential length of stay in the United States.
Conversely, Biden has promised to end the per country cap for employment-based green cards. His plans also include a direct pathway to green cards for individuals who meet certain criteria, such as Dreamers or those who have received Temporary Protected Status.
“Being an international student during the Trump administration was sad at best, and scary at worst. There were so many times where I just felt very, very unwanted,” Das Sharma said. “So I was super happy when Biden won. I cried. I just felt like this nightmare was finally over.”
She added that many of the Trump administration’s immigration policies, such as increased restrictions on student visas, were especially disheartening.
“I’m glad because I feel like the Biden administration is setting precedent as an ally, and that [immigrants’] work is also valued," Das Sharma said.
College senior Melissa Cortes, a first-generation student whose parents immigrated from Colombia, said that she was especially glad to see some of Biden’s early reforms in immigration policy, especially Biden’s termination of the ban on travelers from a number of majority-Muslim countries, which was originally issued by Trump in 2017.
“We’re already seeing several executive orders being issued, like terminating the Muslim ban, which was great to see because when it was enacted, within Trump's first day of office or first week of office, it was just terrifying to see the many in families that were essentially pulled apart because of this ban," she said.
Cortes is also hopeful that the administration will take steps to protect DACA students, and said she believes they should be given a direct pathway to citizenship, especially if they have been in the country since they were infants. Likewise, College junior Angie Pajares is excited to see Biden’s plan to grant legal status to 11 million undocumented immigrants.
Cortes also spoke to her concerns about the administration’s plans to tackle the student debt crisis, in which more than 40 million Americans now hold over $1 trillion in student debt. The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has made student loan payments more difficult for some people, as experts estimate that roughly 10 million student loan borrowers could now be out of a job, according to CNBC.
Biden had promised $10,000 in student debt forgiveness during his campaign, but has not yet issued an executive order.
“I think now more than ever we need to actually tackle student debt, especially in the midst of the pandemic where people are not able to make their student loan payments,” Cortes said. “I think it places this enormous burden on barriers to entry for higher education."
Experts have stated that due to the crowded nature of Biden’s political agenda, it could take some time for Americans to see the new administration take legislative action regarding student debt alleviation.
Penn professor Dick Polman, a writer in residence at the Kelly Writers House and a national political columnist at WHYY, said that he’s “only cautiously optimistic” that Biden will be able to get some of his proposed reforms through the two chambers of Congress because of the filibuster in the Senate.
College junior Cecelia Vieira hopes the Biden administration approaches education policy at the elementary level as well, adding that she would like to see huge federal investments into the education system to aid students and public school teachers amid the COVID-19 crisis — like increasing hazard pay for public school teachers in urban centers. She hopes to see an initiative that supports, trains, and implements a raised minimum wage level for teachers nationwide.
“[The Trump Administration’s] focus on charter schools as a solution to inequities in the public education system is a bandaid solution across the board,” Vieira said about her dissatisfaction with the previous administration's handling of educational inequities.
College senior Natalia Rommen says that though she fears Biden, a former Penn Presidential Professor of Practice, and Harris will not take as aggressive an approach to criminal justice reform she believes the country's penal system requires, she hopes their term offers a starting point for more progressive criminal justice reform.
“I hope the administration can begin by addressing disparities in education, healthcare, and various other resources that are less accessible to underrepresented minorities,” Rommen said. “Plus, incarceration is expensive. I’d like to see the Biden-Harris administration reinvesting federal funds to supporting low-income communities by providing resources and support to combat poverty and focus on rehabilitation, rather than excessive punishment.”
In today's state prisons, Black people are incarcerated at more than five times the rate of white people.
Rommen added that she believes Biden and Harris must begin by decriminalizing marijuana at the federal level and releasing all individuals incarcerated for drug use alone, as well as addressing the root causes of incarceration.
Identity and Representation
College sophomore and Penn Democrats political director Noah Lewine said that the increased representation among the administration's personnel has not been given enough praise.
"This is a far more representative White House of what the nation looks like and is an absolutely historic moment for the vice presidency and presidency as a whole," Lewine said, noting the inauguration of Harris as the first woman, Black American, and Asian American to be vice president of the United States.
If approved by the Senate, Biden’s cabinet will be more diverse than any cabinet in American history. Half of the President's nominees for Cabinet positions and Cabinet-level positions are people of color according to a CNN analysis, topping the Obama administration's previous record for diversity with a Cabinet that comprised 42% people of color.
“I don't think the significance of [Harris' appointment] should be lost on anyone and it bears repeating time and time again that having her represent us as the first woman to hold that office, or the national federal office is an incredible accomplishment and something that [Penn Dems is] incredibly proud to be a part of," Lewine said.
Pajares agreed, adding that the inauguration left her filled with pride in being an American.
Polman said that one of his key takeaways from Biden’s inauguration speech was the point he made about the importance of restoring American democracy, noting its importance following the right-wing insurrection at the Capitol.
“This is one of the crises that we really need to address, and this is something you don't need legislation for. The fuel of democracy are facts and truths," he said.
College sophomore and Penn Dems membership director Maddi Salwen said she would like the Biden-Harris administration to enact strong environmental policies to combat climate change, such as taking legislative action against fracking, in light of the large number of Obama-era progressive climate regulations rolled back by the Trump administration.
Biden has prioritized environmental policies, having rejoined the Paris Climate Agreement and begun overturning over 100 environmental deregulation policies enacted by the Trump administration just eight days into his presidency.
"It's great to hear someone with relevant priorities that the nation is hungry to have addressed. There's only so many things you can do with executive orders, and that's why he's doing so many of them the first couple weeks," Polman said about Biden. "It certainly shows us action. It shows us intent."
Wharton sophomore and Class of 2023 president Derek Nhieu said he would like to see the administration adopt dual policies that simultaneously help the environment and economy, such as exploring sustainable energy resources that can stimulate business.
“[The economy] does affect all of us. It affects the economy. It affects every single aspect of our everyday life," Nhieu said.
Lewine said he is looking forward to having a president “that listens to science and takes well-planned, thought-out steps” to enact environmental change. Unlike Biden, Trump repeatedly disregarded and questioned the scientific knowledge of experts in regards to COVID-19 and climate change.
College junior Harrison Feinman said that enacting progressive environmental policies should be a priority for the administration.
“This really is the moment that if something is going to happen, it's got to happen now, and it’s got to be dramatic," Feinman said. "The environment is so big that we can kind of use that niche of climate change to help deal with some of these other big issues, like inequality and racial justice."