President Joe Biden has signed three extensive executive actions targeting Donald Trump’s immigration agenda, including measures to begin reuniting families separated at the US-Mexico border and review the former administration’s asylum policies.
The president said his order will “work to undo the moral and national shame of family separations” by creating a task force to reunite families separated at the US-Mexico border under the previous administration’s “zero tolerance” policy.
More than 5,500 families were separated during the Trump administration’s four-year term, though many of those families were reunited. Immigrant advocates are still searching for more than 600 parents, while more than 1,400 others who were deported without their children have now spent years separated from their families in the countries they fled in the first place.
Alejandro Mayorkas – the president’s pick for secretary of the Department of Homeland Security – will lead reunification efforts. He was confirmed in the Senate and sworn in by Vice President Kamala Harris on Tuesday.
The incoming secretary is the first immigrant and Latino to lead the office.
“I want to make it clear – there's a lot of talk, with good reason, about the number of executive orders that I sign," the president told reporters inside the Oval Office on Tuesday. "I'm not making the law. I'm eliminating bad policy.”
Immigration advocates and civil rights groups have argued that the executive actions are too limited and that the task force does not go far enough to meet the crisis at the US-Mexico border or allow hundreds of families that were deported from their children to reunite in the US.
The task force will “broadly” cover the zero-tolerance era, including a pilot programme in El Paso that saw hundreds of separations, according to senior administration officials. But it’s unclear whether families who were deported to the countries they fled in an effort to reunite there will be given special protections to return to the US.
According to the executive order, the task force will review “any other related policy, program, practice, or initiative resulting in the separation of children from their families” at the border.
It covers a range of 20 January 2017 through 20 January 2021, the duration of Trump’s term.
Lee Gelernt, deputy director of the ACLU’s Immigrants’ Rights Project, has stressed that the administration “must do more than that if it is going to fully address the family separation tragedy it inherited.”
Immigrants rights’ groups Al Otro Lado and Justice in Motion have urged the president to commit to not only returning separated families but also providing them legal status and health support after enduring traumatic separations, imprisonment and deportations.
White House press secretary Jen Psaki said that the order is “part of our effort to assess the damage that has been done by the policies that were put in place by the prior administration.”
“We want to act swiftly, we want to act promptly,” she said. “But we also need to make sure we’re doing that through a strategic policy process.”
The task force will issue a status report within 120 days, then a progress report every 60 days after that.
“This is very difficult,” Ms Psaki said. “It’s emotional for a lot of people for understandable reasons, and we need to find out first where all these kids are and figure out where their parents are, and so we are starting at square one here. … I don’t think any parent can look at what happened to those kids over the last couple of years and not feel that we should do everything in our power to get those kids back with their parents."
Another executive order directs Homeland Security to review several Trump-era asylum policies, including a controversial policy that barred asylum seekers from entering the US while their cases are pending. Migrant Protection Protocols – the so-called Remain in Mexico policy – has effectively left thousands of people stranded in potentially dangerous areas of Mexico.
The administration will also review a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention policy in place since March 2020 during the coronavirus pandemic that allows border enforcement to expel asylum seekers without a court hearing. The order has impacted thousands of migrants.
President Biden intends to “enhance lawful pathways for migration to this country” and “restore and strengthen our own asylum system, which has been badly damaged by policies enacted over the last [four] years that contravened our values and caused needless human suffering,” according to the order.
A third executive order calls for a comprehensive review of the “existing regulations, orders, guidance documents, policies, and any other similar agency actions” inconsistent with the Biden administration’s immigration agenda.
It calls for a review of the public charge rule, which denies permanent resident status to immigrants who relied on public benefits, such as food stamps or housing assistance, for longer than a certain period of time. It also calls for a plan to “improve” the byzantine citizenship process, and to implement the plan within 180 days of its submission.
President Biden has signed several immigration-related actions, including overturning his predecessor’s ban on travel from majority-Muslim countries and suspending construction of a border wall.
Last week, a Trump-appointed judge blocked an earlier order from the president to freeze certain deportations for 100 days. Within the days that followed, the US Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency deported dozens of immigrants from the US to Central America, Haiti and Africa.
On Tuesday, more than 100 immigration, civil rights, faith-based and human rights groups and legal clinics have demanded the president halt the deportation of people in ICE custody and urge the new DHS to “leave behind the racist and unfair treatment of those seeking our help, as we move towards a more just and humane system of immigration.”
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