U.S. President Joe Biden’s executive orders this week reversing Trump administration immigration policies change little on the ground now but set the stage for future action, experts told VOA.
It is a message Biden himself reinforced when he signed three orders Tuesday.
“I want to make it clear — 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,” he told reporters.
For now, immigrant rights advocates are signaling a wait-and-see approach as the new administration launches a process to review restrictive immigration policies implemented by Trump.
“If there's an existing regulation, and then there's a process to go through to get rid of the regulation, some things are just going to take longer than others as a procedural matter,” Omar Jadwat, director of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) Immigrants’ Rights Project, told VOA.
Backers of the Trump administration’s immigration initiatives are warning of chaos at the U.S. southern border if policies return to what they were before Trump was in the White House.
Task force to reunite separated families
Biden’s first action ordered a task force to identify all migrant children who were separated from their families at the U.S.-Mexico border under the previous administration’s “Zero Tolerance” policy for undocumented arrivals. It also instructed the task force to facilitate family reunification and examine whether those families are eligible for immigration relief under current immigration law.
In 2018, the Trump administration directed U.S. attorneys to detain anyone who crossed the border illegally, breaking with long-standing U.S. policies to release most asylum-seekers pending their immigration court dates.
At least 5,500 children were separated from their families in overcrowded detention facilities. While most have been reunited, several hundred children remain in U.S. custody while attempts continue to locate their parents or other family members, many of whom were deported to their countries of origin.
ACLU attorney Lee Gelernt said he is “pleased” with the creation of the task force but notes that the executive action does not address whether parents removed from the U.S. will be given humanitarian protections and allowed to come back to the United States to reunite with their children.
Biden’s order asks for an initial report in 120 days — a time frame that does not satisfy Gelernt, who was the lead attorney in a 2018 class-action lawsuit the ACLU filed against the U.S. government over family separations.
“Separated families need immediate action. They cannot wait 120 days for a task force to make recommendations,” he said. “These families deserve citizenship, care and resources. We hope the task force acts with urgency and look forward to working with it to reunite families and ensure that this never happens again.”
Immigration attorneys said it should not take long before actual changes begin to happen under the new administration. But University of San Francisco law and migration studies professor Bill Hing said when it comes to family reunification, Biden needs to “offer more.”
“Part of the remedy is that you let the people come (back) because it's not just to get a visa, it's to get services,” Hing said, adding, “They all need mental health services.”
US border policies
Biden’s second order sets in motion a series of reviews, including the Trump administration’s “Remain in Mexico” policy, also known as Migrant Protection Protocols (MPP), which have forced tens of thousands of asylum-seekers to await U.S. immigration court dates on the Mexican side of the border.
Though MPP has been suspended going forward, it remains unclear what will happen to people who have been placed in the program and are waiting in Mexico for their immigration court date.
The Biden administration is also reviewing a possible relaunching of the Central American Minors Program.
Before the Trump administration, foreign minors could be lawfully reunited with family members already living in the United States if they met certain requirements. Trump ended the program in 2017.
“One of the things (in the executive order) is to try to expedite the reunification of family members rather than having a young person wait abroad for maybe one or two years while the normal paperwork is in process,” said New York-based Legal Aid Society immigration attorney Hasan Shafiqullah.
Review of legal immigration restrictions
The third executive action directs the State Department, the Justice Department and the Department of Homeland Security to reevaluate existing regulations, orders, guidance documents, policies and other agency actions taken in the last four years pertaining to immigration.
Chief among them is the former administration’s expansion and enforcement of the public charge rule, which sets forth an immigrant’s likelihood to rely on public assistance programs as a criterion in assessing a permanent residency application.
Biden’s order also calls for improving the U.S. naturalization process by reducing barriers and streamlining procedures.
Immigration attorney L. Patricia Ice with the Mississippi Immigration Rights Alliance said the order is aimed at eliminating barriers and streamlining the existing naturalization process.
“I think this is one of the important parts of this executive order, because it will make the naturalization process easier,” she said. “It will make it shorter, so that people who apply for naturalization won't have to wait a year or more. I have had clients who have been waiting for a long time to get an interview.”
Lora Ries, a senior research fellow at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank based in Washington, said in a statement that the executive orders are harmful and will undermine America’s immigration system.
“America’s immigration policy should protect our borders, uphold our laws, and safeguard our values, but these immigration executive orders are just more evidence that the Biden administration is intent on implementing a radical immigration agenda that does none of those things,” she said.
Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina said the orders “undercut bipartisan immigration solutions.”
“The refusal to continue building the border wall and changing Trump asylum policies requiring migrants to wait in Mexico for their court date are formulas for disaster and will create massive future runs on the border,” he said.
Immigrant advocates, by contrast, call Biden’s executive actions a much-needed starting point.
“Things require additional agency action for process to take place. … It kind of sets out a broad framework and provides some guideposts but really leaves it to the (U.S.) agencies to fill it out right and figure out,” the ACLU’s Jadwat said.