Biden's Immigration Executive Orders Mark Start of Yearslong Effort to Untangle Trump Policies

The Biden administration on Tuesday will announce new executive orders on immigration, a continuation of the effort to undo Donald Trump's policies but one that offers further evidence the process to do so will be long and arduous.

The executive orders, some long-promised, center on constituting a family reunification task force for families separated by the Trump administration, that will work with representatives of impacted families and partners across the hemisphere to find separated families, while offering recommendations to President Joe Biden and federal agencies on steps they can take to reunify families.

The orders also call for a review of the so-called Remain in Mexico policy that stranded asylum seekers, raise the refugee cap, and include policies that represent an about-face toward migration from Latin America. In addition, there is an omnibus executive order to review and rescind the public charge rule and address increased naturalization fees from Trump that affected low-income people, with an eye towards streamlining the naturalization process.

Activists and Latino leaders have seized on Biden's ongoing response to the family separation crisis created by Trump, calling the separation of children "a national disgrace" that harks back to the worst moments in U.S. history.

"We can and must do better," Héctor Sánchez Barba, the executive director of national grass-roots organization Mi Familia Vota, told Newsweek when asked about the new immigration orders. "We are heartened to see the Biden administration taking a holistic approach to all of this. We look forward to working with them to ensure that the horrible policies that separated so many families are replaced with those that are in keeping with our proud immigrant history."

But stakeholders on immigration and activists have repeatedly noted a thorny truth facing the new White House, one raised again by these new executive orders: reversing systemic immigration policy from the Trump era is easier said than done.

Some aspects of the orders—like addressing the Trump administration increases in fees for naturalization and the ending of fee waivers for low-income people—are easy for Biden to reverse. But others, like navigating the human toll and logistics of reuniting families, and rebuilding a gutted asylum system, are a different story.

"It's complicated," said reform advocate Frank Sharry, a veteran of the immigration legislative battles dating back to 2004 when George W. Bush was pushing an overhaul, followed by Senators Ted Kennedy and John McCain introducing a bill in 2005.

Sharry was speaking about ending, but also addressing, the fallout of the Migrant Protection Protocols, known as Remain in Mexico. "How do you bring in 15,000 people that are in northern Mexico, all while observing health protocols due to the pandemic and instituting fair rules on asylum focused on a case management system and families, instead of detention?" Sharry asked.

"It's easier to bring down the house than to rebuild it," said Marielena Hincapié, executive director of the National Immigration Law Center, who was co-chair of the Biden-Sanders unity task force on immigration during the campaign. "Trump made systemic and structural changes that are going to take years to undo."

Concerning Latin American migration, the orders seek to enact a three-part plan which addresses the underlying causes of migration in home countries, shores up countries' capacity to provide protection to asylum seekers before they make the dangerous trek to the U.S., but ensures refugees and asylum seekers have access to legal avenues to the United States.

One of the fundamental differences between Trump and Biden is how they view Latin America through the prism of migration from El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras, known as the Northern Triangle countries. Biden's goal is to use his executive orders, as well as legislation, to address the root causes of migration at the source, a strategy he used before while vice president under Barack Obama.

Before Congress agreed to a $750 million bipartisan aid deal in Obama's second term, Biden took the lead in convincing Republican lawmakers that it was better to stem migration at its source, rather than spending almost all federal funding on dealing with it once it becomes a massive problem at the border.

That way of thinking is a key part of what activists are calling Biden's "new approach" to Latin America, but the past four years of American policy will also necessitate new programs from the administration, they said.

"Trump and [former adviser Stephen] Miller created such a chaotic and cruel mess that to clean it up is going to take multiple programs, like setting up a refugee processing center in the three Northern Triangle countries," Sharry said.

Still, the orders are the continuation of Biden campaign pledges that activists and Latino leaders are heartened to see him fulfilling. The comprehensive immigration reform bill may end up stalling in the Senate, which will bring pressure down on the president, but for now advocates believe the White House is off to a good start.

"Biden was elected with one of the broadest coalitions in American history, a multigenerational, multi-ethic coalition," Hincapié said. "They see they have a mandate to be unapologetically pro-immigrant, and that to be pro-immigrant is pro-America."

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Central American migrants watch President Joe Biden's inauguration ceremony at a migrant shelter in Ciudad Juárez, Mexico, on January 20. HERIKA MARTINEZ/AFP/Getty