President Biden has built on the executive actions he took on his first day in office. On February 2, he signed three new executive orders on immigration, all of which seek to rectify the consequences of the harsh policies made by his predecessor. These new orders primarily call for a review—rather than an end—to Trump's policies. As Mr. Biden said as he signed the orders in the Oval Office, “We're going to work to undo the moral and national shame of the previous administration that literally, not figuratively, ripped children from the arms of their families, the mothers and fathers at the border, and with no plan — none whatsoever — to reunify the children.” It will take time to restore the immigration system. These newly implemented changes are cautious steps that will not bring an immediate effect; they will nonetheless play a part in reshaping policy.
This trio of executive actions will:
1. Create a Task Force to Reunify Families.
One of Biden's campaign pledges was to reunify families separated at the southern border as a result of Trump's “zero tolerance” policy. The first of the February 2 executive actions will create a task force to bring together these children and parents or guardians. Recently Senate-confirmed Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas will chair the task force alongside leadership at the State Department and department of Health and Human Services. Together, they will work to identify all the children separated, facilitate reunifications, and regularly report to the president.
The previous administration implemented the “zero tolerance” toward undocumented border crossing in 2018. As the Los Angeles Times reports, a court ordered the end of the practice that same year, “but not before thousands were torn apart — as many as 5,500 children, according to some estimates, with more than 1,400 of their parents deported without them.” Court filings from January of this year reveal that over six hundred families remain apart and are yet to be located by advocacy groups, lawyers and the parties to the lawsuit against family separation. According to one senior official, “The first order of the task force will be to try and get a better handle on these numbers, and start reuniting children with their parents.”
2. Develop a Strategy to Address Irregular Migration Across the Southern Border and Create a Humane Asylum System.
The second executive order will offer support to Central America in an effort to mitigate the driving force of migration from these countries. According to the Guardian, senior administration officials said this “included working with governments and not-for-profit groups to increase other countries' capacities to host migrants and ensuring Central American refugees and asylum seekers have legal pathways to enter the US.” This order also calls for a review of the Migrant Protection Policy (MPP). Commonly referred to as the “Remain in Mexico” policy, this protocol has forced approximately 70,000 asylum seekers to return to dangerous conditions in Mexico as they wait for suspended immigration court hearings in the U.S. to resume. The Trump administration effectively closed the border last March under the guise of COVID-19. The New York Times writes that “Mr. Biden has not said publicly when he will lift the pandemic emergency rule, even after a federal judge in the District of Columbia on Friday allowed the federal government to continue using the rule to rapidly deport migrant children at the border.”
3. Restore Faith in Our Legal Immigration System and Promote Integration of New Americans
The third and final executive action “elevates the role of the White House in coordinating the federal government's strategy to promote immigrant integration and inclusion, including re-establishing a Task Force on New Americans, and ensuring that our legal immigration system operates fairly and efficiently.” This will take the form of a top-to-bottom review of the legal immigration system and the regulations, policies, and guidance that compose it. The “public charge” rule will be among the policies reviewed; it is among one of the most well-known efforts by the former administration's attempt to restrict immigration. Under this rule, immigrants who use public benefits such as Medicaid, food stamps, and housing vouchers can be denied permanent legal status. Additionally, the naturalization process will be reviewed so as to streamline it and make it more accessible. CNN Politics explains that this will include “putting together a plan that eliminates barriers in the process, reducing processing times and making the process more accessible to eligible individuals.”
These latest contributions to immigration reform are certainly characterized by “review” more so than by concrete change. They also do not, for example, address serious issues like immigration detention and Title 42, which is a Center for Disease Control (CDC) bar on asylum seekers and refugees during the coronavirus pandemic. Nonetheless, conservative activists criticize the Biden administration and claim that “these orders will take away jobs from Americans struggling to find employment.” Some immigrant advocates, on the other hand, want more immediate implementation of policy change. To this, President Biden has one reminder: “There's a lot of talk, with good reason, about the number of executive orders that I have signed.…I'm not making new law. I'm eliminating bad policy.” The elimination of bad policy is undeniably critical. As the New York Times points out, the reviews and the task force “could ultimately open new channels of legal immigration, expand the chance that migrants fleeing violence can win asylum, end the Trump program that forces migrants to wait in Mexico and fully repair the damage done by Mr. Trump's ‘zero tolerance' policy that led to family separations at the border.” These latest orders and ones to come are paving the way for an immigration system reformed for the better.