Biden Has Already Reset the Focus of the U.S. Immigration System for the Better

People around the country are celebrating the reversal of egregious, dangerous policies that undermined our security, our economic interests, and our sense of democratic values. 

Biden Has Already Reset the Focus of the U.S. Immigration System for the Better
The “Time Is Now” Immigration Reform Rally at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C. on April 10, 2013. (David Sachs / SEIU)

In an extraordinary series of executive orders and other actions taken on Inauguration Day, President Joe Biden reset the focus of the nation’s immigration system, directing the country’s attention to the value and importance of welcoming immigrants. This is a sharp contrast to the last four years, in which the Trump administration sought at every turn to demonize immigrants, portray the nation as under attack from outsiders, and bang the drum for nativism and extremism. 

Biden started the ball rolling with the repeal of the infamous Muslim and African bans, which Biden described as contrary to America’s interests, its values, and “just plain wrong.”

He also renewed Deferred Enforced Departure status for Liberians—an important measure that will allow them to continue to live and work in the U.S. while they apply for a legalization program that was terribly bungled by the Trump administration. 

In other much anticipated moves, Biden renewed the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, which protects Dreamers from removal, and ordered an end to the construction of Trump’s border wall.

In another important suite of reforms, Biden ordered a top to bottom review of immigration enforcement policies and refocused  immigration priorities on targeted groups, shifting away from the Trump era mandates that  designated all people here unlawfully––whether a convicted terrorist or a young mother working in a meat packing plant—equal priorities for arrest and removal.

DHS Acting Secretary David Pekoske immediately issued an implementation memo requiring DHS officials to prioritize the removal of individuals deemed national security or public safety threats or those who crossed the border unlawfully after November 1, 2020.  This directive also ordered a 100-day pause on deportations, effective January 22, 2021, while the department conducts the exhaustive review of enforcement policies ordered by Biden. 

Pekoske also rescinded six memos issued during the Trump administration that virtually eliminated the discretion to decide who should be placed in removal proceedings and how they should be treated.


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In concert with these orders, DHS also announced that it was ending the Migrant Protection Protocols, or “Remain in Mexico” program, which forced asylum-seekers and other immigrants to wait in squalor on the Mexican side of the border rather than allow them into the U.S. to await removal proceedings.

All of these actions are significant first steps towards creating a more equitable and humane immigration system.  They should also reassure the world that the U.S. intends to reclaim its position as a leader on humanitarian issues, and its role in welcoming immigrants of all races and religions to this country.  People around the country are celebrating the reversal of egregious, dangerous policies that undermined our security, our economic interests, and our sense of democratic values. 

But there is much, much more to be learned from a closer look at this set of actions, which also included the announcement of the framework for a massive immigration reform bill, and the promise of more executive actions to come.

In short, the rollout of the Biden immigration plan reflects a new approach to managing immigration issues, one that learns from the mistakes of past administrations.

Here are three critical takeaways:

 1. The Biden team is highly organized.

Unlike the chaos and heartbreak that followed President Trump’s executive orders, the Biden administration made sure to issue guidance to the immigration agencies in concert with the executive actions.  This will allow for a more orderly and thoughtful transition to the new policies as well as setting out timetables and other expectations for how the President’s orders will be carried out. 

Maintaining that level of organization and transparency will become more complicated as the days unfold, but this is an early sign that the Biden administration plans to be careful and conscientious, thinking about the consequences of its actions on real people.

Biden’s the deportation moratorium offers an opportunity to revisit not only the results of an immigration case, but the reasons someone ended up in removal proceedings to start with. (David Sachs / SEIU)

2. Prosecutorial discretion will play a much larger role in the Biden immigration plan, but it will not rely on discretion alone.

The renewal of DACA signals a return to a broader systemic use of prosecutorial discretion to defer the removal of individuals who are not a threat to this country, and in fact, contribute greatly to it.  Biden’s more clearly delineated set of enforcement priorities also reflects an intention to use individual grants of  prosecutorial discretion more generously, recognizing that deporting millions of undocumented immigrants who have deep ties to the community is a waste of human capital and a disruption of lives that is unnecessary to keep the country safe. 

Rather than just rely on the discretion of individual officers, however, the Biden team layered in additional measures of oversight and review, something that has been missing in past enforcement priority initiatives.  Greater transparency and accountability are critical to ensuring the success of these new priorities.

3. Biden is willing to shake things up.

The Biden administration has characterized its deportation moratorium as a “pause” that will allow it to review cases currently in the pipeline for removal.  While that is certainly true, it is much more than that.  It is a repudiation of the idea that every encounter with an undocumented immigrant should end with deportation.  The implementation of this pause includes directions to carefully review individual cases which could result in new outcomes for some people ordered removed.  This might seem like an obvious result to people who don’t spend their days in the immigration space, but it is a dramatic shift for the workings of the giant immigration machine. 

Given the Biden administration’s commitment to unearthing systemic racism throughout government systems, the deportation moratorium offers an opportunity to revisit not only the results of an immigration case, but the reasons someone ended up in removal proceedings to start with.  It could be a remarkable change.

There is a lot of work to do to move from symbolism to status quo, but it is a promising start.  Any one of these decisions would have been a huge victory for the millions of people who have fought back against Trump’s immigration policies; as a group, they are a powerful repudiation of mindless immigration enforcement and the renewal of humanitarian decision-making at a time when it is desperately needed.

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About

Mary Giovagnoli is the former executive director of Refugee Council USA.  She served as deputy assistant secretary for immigration policy in the Department of Homeland Security from January 2016 to January 2018.