In his latest executive orders attempting to combat damaging legislation from the previous administration, President Joe Biden signed three immigration reform bills this week that he said would lead the way to a more “fair, orderly, humane” immigration system. Biden’s plan includes restoring the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, eliminating Trump’s restrictions on asylum-seekers, and a 100-day moratorium on deportations. But in the hours since Biden signed these actions, activists have been vocal in saying that these reforms are a start, but they are not enough.
These three actions are a start to rolling back former President Donald Trump’s cruel immigration measures which included separating more than 5,000 children from their parents at the border.
During his campaign, Biden pledged that, should he be elected, he would reverse many of Trump’s most controversial policies — a promise he has prioritized during his first weeks in office. “There’s a lot of talk, with good reason, about the number of executive orders that I’ve signed,” Biden told reporters in the Oval Office before signing these three latest reform bills on Tuesday. “I’m not making new law – I’m eliminating bad policy.”
One of the orders initiates a task force to begin the difficult process of reuniting these children with their families who were deported without them – a reality Biden described as a “moral and national shame.” Making the job even more challenging, NPR reports, is the lack of records. How children will be reunited with their families has yet to be determined, but it is the task force’s responsibility to work with representatives of families and issue progress reports after the first 120 days and every 60 days after that, White House press secretary Jen Psaki explained during a briefing.
“What we need now is an immediate commitment to specific remedies, including reunification in the U.S., permanent legal status, and restitution for all of the 5,500-plus families separated by the Trump administration,” Lee Gelernt from the American Civil Liberties Union told NPR. “Anything short of that will be extremely troubling given that the U.S. government engaged in deliberate child abuse.”
Bob Goodfellow, Interim Executive Director of Amnesty International USA echoed a similar sentiment, suggesting a sweeping criminal investigation into all government officials and contractors involved. “We cannot brush aside accountability for unity. While the harms wrought by family separation can never fully heal, a criminal investigation is a critical and necessary step to ensure that such grave human rights violations are never repeated,” Goodfellow said.
The second order Biden issued Tuesday seeks to address the increasing number of people seeking asylum in the US in recent years. One specific goal of the order is to replace the Migrant Protection Protocols program that Trump referred to as “Remain in Mexico.” Biden suspended this program on his first day in office, vowing to help Central American countries address the causes contributing to increased migration. What is not clear is how the asylum system will be restored.
“We want to put in place an immigration process here that is humane, that is moral, that considers applications for refugees, applications for people to come into this country at the border in a way that treats people as human beings,” Psaki said. “That’s going to take some time. It’s not going to happen overnight.”
Finally, the third order is a “top-to-bottom review of recent regulations, policies, and guidance that have set up barriers to our legal immigration system.” This includes Trump’s “public charge” rule, which has prevented immigrants from obtaining a green card or permanent resident status if they previously had or were likely to need public benefits such as food stamps and housing subsidies.
These three reform bills are in addition to Biden’s expansive immigration legislative proposal that he sent to Congress the day he was sworn into office. At the center of this proposal is clarifying paths to citizenship, with the first being an eight-year pathway that would give millions a temporary status for five years and then grant them a green card once they meet requirements such as payment of taxes and a background check, reports The Washington Post. DACA recipients would be allowed to apply for a green card immediately. But, again, how quickly the plan may be considered remains uncertain.
Immigration activists are worried that these reforms will stall out as Biden’s attention is pulled to responding to health and economic crises brought on by the coronavirus pandemic, racial equity, and climate change. “We need advocates and people who will wake up every day thinking about how they’re going to fix the system so that people like myself and people like my family and others who are seeking refuge here have the ability to have a better life,” Erika Andiola, advocacy director for RAICES, told NPR.
Activists aren’t just looking for a return to Barack Obama-era immigration policy. In fact, some immigration rights advocates were unhappy with Obama’s record on deportations. In 2014, he was denounced by the nation’s largest Latino advocacy group, the National Council of La Raza as the “deporter-in-chief” when the number of deportations reached nearly two million. At the time, Obama insisted that Congress had his hands tied when it came to unilateral decision making, but grassroots movements like La Raza believed there was still a lot that could be done for immigrants that weren't being prioritized.
There are just under 11 million undocumented immigrants living in the United States. In total, more than 40 million people living in the US were born in another country. These policies affect tens of millions of people. What the Biden administration does to serve this community, as activists are saying, cannot just focus on undoing what Trump did the last four years. It will be about an open dialogue with advocacy groups and striking a balance that proactively goes beyond that.