Biden’s Second Round of Executive Actions Tackles Immigration and Reuniting Families

Making amends for the suffering caused by Trump’s deportation schemes is an important step in rebuilding trust in the immigration system. But making sure this never happens again will be an important part of the Biden administration’s legacy.

Biden's Second Round of Executive Actions Tackles Immigration and Reuniting Families
(Thomas Hawk / Flickr)

The second round of executive actions on immigration, signed by President Biden this week, send a clear message that the Biden administration intends to tackle the immense structural damage caused to U.S. immigration policies by the Trump administration.

One order provides for sweeping reviews of asylum and other humanitarian policies and a recommitment to addressing the root causes of migration from Central America, while another calls for a reboot of the U.S. legal immigration system, paying particular attention to promoting integration and naturalization of immigrants. The third fulfills an oft-repeated campaign promise: to set up a task force to reunify families separated at the border as a result of the cruel zero-tolerance policy.

The orders are another step towards the overhaul of immigration policies signaled on Day One of Biden’s presidency, but they differ in character from the first group of executive orders. Whereas the Day One orders focused on policies that could be quickly reversed, such as the Muslim and African bans, the Day Fourteen announcements are more nuanced, relying more heavily on task forces and working groups to review and recommend changes to domestic policies put in place by Trump that are embedded in regulatory and other administrative processes—possibly requiring more time to fix.

The scope of issues ordered reviewed is expansive. For example, the order addressing Central American migration and asylum policies calls for a three-tiered approach, seeking to use foreign aid and assistance to improve the structural issues of poverty, corruption and violence that plague much of Central America, particularly El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras.

Other more stable countries in the region will be supported in building up their capacity to accept asylum seekers. U.S. efforts to assist people in danger closer to home will also be amped up, including restoring the Central American Minor Program, which offered a lifeline to children and young people at risk of harm; exploring other options for processing refugees in the region; and reversing course on multiple asylum policies that stripped away rights. 

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The order addressing legal immigration takes an equally expansive swipe at four years of destructive Trump regulations and policies to obstruct legal immigration, discourage naturalization, and drive wedges between the native born and immigrant communities of the United States. 

The revival of an Interagency Task Force on Integration, an Obama-Biden initiative, will likely result in greater cooperation across government to identify and streamline programs that facilitate education, work force development, and community building. A new task force aimed at promoting naturalization is likely to spearhead mass community engagement to encourage the roughly 9 million people eligible to naturalize to become citizens.

The most specific and concrete executive order, however, creates an Interagency Task Force charged with reuniting families separated at the border by the Trump administration between 2017 and 2021. The Task Force is charged with finding these families, issuing recommendations to make them whole, and drafting policy recommendations that will prevent future family separations. 

Making amends for the incredible suffering caused by Trump’s zero tolerance and other deportation schemes is an important step in rebuilding trust in the system. But making sure that this never happens again, by developing concrete and compassionate protocols for keeping parents and children together will ultimately be an even more important legacy of the Task Force.

Family separation is perhaps the ultimate symbol of the cruelties of an immigration system where bad asylum policies, amped up enforcement policies, inadequate procedures for protecting children, and lack of oversight of frontline personnel converge. The Trump administration made all of those factors worse, but they remain unresolved problems in the system as a whole. The task force will need to address all of these issues to truly ensure that children are never again torn from their parents’ arms.

In fact, each aspect of this new round of executive orders has a similar tale to tell. By necessity, distinct tasks and problems have to be addressed, one element at a time. But all of the issues are connected. 

Managing our legal immigration system well can reduce the impetus for unauthorized migration. Instilling a truly humanitarian approach in how we view migration from Central America and elsewhere changes the equation for how we talk about and treat the people encountered at the border. Encouraging integration and naturalization requires re-examining enforcement policies that alienate and frighten immigrant populations. 

Biden's Second Round of Executive Actions Tackles Immigration and Reuniting Families
A pro-immigration protest outside the White House in 2017. (Victoria Pickering / Flickr)

The administration should be applauded for taking on so much. But the goal can’t be just to restore the status quo. Instead, the various reviews and task forces put in place this week have to be leveraged to create a more thoughtful and unified approach to managing all aspects of our immigration system. 

But the task ahead is hard. The Trump administration left behind a badly damaged infrastructure, and left landmines that are causing problems for some of the Day One initiatives—such as the deportation moratorium, which is currently enjoined after the State of Texas spuriously argued, in part, that ending deportations would cause harm to the state.

Consequently, there is already a disconnect between policy and practice, and working to get back on track as quickly as possible is essential to maintaining the public’s trust in the broad reforms that have been ordered. There’s every reason to assume good will on the administration’s part, but the more it can engage with the public on the problems and issues that arise in the course of these sweeping reforms, the more it will create an atmosphere of trust that is vital to making sure the vision succeeds.

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Mary Giovagnoli is an immigration attorney and policy expert who has worked for over 25 years in both the federal government and nonprofit advocacy to improve the immigration system. She is a former executive director of the Refugee Council USA. She served as the DHS deputy assistant secretary for immigration policy from 2015 to 2017.