7 ways the Biden Administration is reforming immigration

The Biden administration has already proven within the first month that many positive policy changes are in store for immigrants. Within days of the inauguration, President Biden enacted several executive orders that promise a different approach to U.S. immigration policies than his predecessor.  

Executive orders are mandatory requirements created by the President of the United States and have the effect of law. They are often used to manage federal operations and do not require congressional approval. However, Congress can create barriers to the executive order, such as removing the funding needed to comply with the order or passing a bill that blocks the order, which the president then can veto. The Supreme Court could also declare an executive order unconstitutional. 

Presidents often use executive orders to advance their primary agenda items and it appears immigration reform is high on President Biden’s list of priorities. Here are some highlights of the seven most significant executive orders impacting Immigration so far:

1. Advancing Racial Equity and Support for Underserved Communities Through the Federal Government

This executive order prioritizes racial equality within federal management, training, and education. Biden calls for the federal government to create “a comprehensive approach to advancing equity for all, including people of color and others who have been historically underserved, marginalized, and adversely affected by persistent poverty and inequality.”

The executive order requires federal agencies and executive departments to determine whether their programs or policies create barriers for people of color or other underserved communities from receiving fair access to government benefits, including federally funded nutrition and fair housing programs.

To execute this order, the Office of Management and Budget is required to provide a report to the President within six months of how they will assess, review, and identify barriers and obstacles that prevent the fair distribution of benefits. The report will also determine if the involved agencies have the resources needed to make the necessary changes or if new policies need to be created. 

What this means for immigrants: This executive order is a step in ensuring an equal footing for all citizens, regardless of their birthplace or skin color, accessing the same opportunities and the same federal benefits.

2. Ensuring a Lawful and Accurate Enumeration and Apportionment Pursuant to the Decennial Census

This order seeks to overturn President Trump’s memorandum excluding undocumented citizens from the 2020 United States census count. The order’s goal is to ensure that the census count is accurate, reliable, and based on “high-quality data.” 

The census is a questionnaire sent to every household in the United States that aims to count the entire population and where each person lives. This information ensures that federal funds, grants, and government support for schools, hospitals, roads, and other programs are accurately based on population totals and demographics. It is also used to verify that each state has appropriate representation in the House of Representatives based on its population. 

What this means for immigrants: Without an accurate count of all who live in the United States, regardless of their citizenship status, states and communities can lose out on much-needed federal funding that offers support for their residents.

3. Establishment of Interagency Task Force on the Reunification of Families

This executive order charges the Department of Homeland Security with funding and supporting an interagency task force to identify and reunite all children who have been separated by their families at the U.S./Mexico border between January 20, 2017, and January 20, 2021. It is estimated that 611 children are still separated from their parents because of the Trump administration’s “Zero Tolerance” policy

This order directs the task force to facilitate and enable the reunification of all identified children to the greatest extent possible, including:

  • Providing parole for people under 212(d)(5)(A) of the INA, issuing visas or other immigration benefits
  • Providing trauma and mental health services and support to separated children and their families
  • The reunifications of additional family members of children, including siblings

The order is also part of a comprehensive plan that includes a review of the Public Charge rule and an overall assessment of policies that set barriers to the legal immigration system. 

What this means for immigrants: Many challenges currently face the parents of displaced children, including governmental distrust, the COVID-19 pandemic, and outdated or inaccurate contact information. The interagency task force could help to open the doors to citizenship for reunited families by incentivizing the parents to come forward even if they feel their children are safer in the U.S. without them.

4. Revision of Civil Immigration Enforcement Policies and Priorities

Before the Trump administration, the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) had policies in place that prioritized the removal of noncitizens who were convicted of severe crimes. ICE could also use discretion in the enforcement of deportation for undocumented immigrants with no history of crimes, regardless of how long they have been in the United States. 

The Revision of Civil Immigration Enforcement Policies and Priorities executive order pledges to “reset” immigration enforcement policies and practices by revoking previous orders that expanded the categories of people prioritized for removal. The order also places a temporary moratorium on deportations for 100 days with the exclusion of:

  • Terrorists/spies/national security threats, etc.
  • People who arrived in the U.S. on or after 11/1/2020
  • “Opt-outs,” those who voluntarily waive rights to remain in the U.S. after having been provided meaningful access to counsel, and
  • People required to be removed by law in accordance with an individualized determination made by the acting director of ICE

This moratorium aims to grant time for a regulatory process review of all immigration policies, including a public review and comment period. It also comes at a time where the COVID-19 pandemic is at its highest levels. Continuing with Trump-era levels of deportations could pose a significant health risk to immigration officers, deportees, and other countries worldwide. 

What this means for immigrants: Aside from the 100-day deportation moratorium, which began on 1/22/21, this executive order also rescinds many hard-line immigration policies put into place by President Trump. However, the moratorium does not pause or cancel current removal cases, and ICE can still issue deportations but will not enforce them until after the 100 days ends.

5. Restoring Faith in Our Legal Immigration Systems and Strengthening Integration and Inclusion Efforts for New Americans

This executive order creates a task force to promote integration and inclusion for newly naturalized American citizens. The Department of State, Attorney General, and the Department of Homeland Security support this effort by reviewing and revising any existing regulations and policies that make it difficult for naturalized Americans to receive immigration benefits, including considering rescinding USCIS fee increases.  

The current naturalization process to become a U.S. citizen will also be under review. The executive order will require the Department of State, the Department of Justice, and the Department of Homeland Security to identify the existing barriers to the naturalization process, including reviewing application forms, fingerprinting, background security checks, and associated fees, and processing time. 

What it means for immigrants:  This new order offers a temporary degree of protection for thousands of undocumented immigrants and will lead to processes and legislation that provide a more fair and efficient path to citizenship.

6. Creating a Comprehensive Regional Framework To Address the Causes of Migration, To Manage Migration Throughout North and Central America, and To Provide Safe and Orderly Processing of Asylum Seekers at the United States Border

This executive order intends to “establish a comprehensive strategy for addressing the causes of migration in the region; build, strengthen, and expand Central and North American countries’ asylum systems and resettlement capacity; and increase opportunities for vulnerable populations to apply for protection closer to home. At the same time, the United States will enhance lawful pathways for migration to this country and will restore and strengthen our own asylum system…”

The plan’s goal is to secure the country’s borders and account for the reasons that result in the mass migration of asylum seekers from Central America. This involves understanding the root causes of why people are leaving their home countries and creating foreign policies to help address economic stability, violence, corruption, and human rights violations that cause migration. 

The order also calls on the Department of Homeland Security to end the Migrant Protection Protocols program and coordinate with more stable countries throughout the region to support asylum and refugee resettlement. 

What it means for immigrants: This order pays special attention to find the root cause of the mass migration of refugees from the Northern Triangle countries of El Salvador, Guatemala, and Ecuador. While the order does not change current protocols, it seeks to rebuild the U.S. asylum and border processes. However, the order revokes previous orders that prevented undocumented citizens from pursuing asylum and denied work authorization for asylum seekers.

7. Rebuilding and Enhancing Programs to Resettle Refugees and Planning for the Impact of Climate Change on Migration

As part of a broader executive order focusing on the United States Refugee Admissions Program (USRAP), this order includes policies that maintain a vetting process for refugee applicants that is fair and free from fraud. The executive order also seeks opportunities to enhance access for “people who are more vulnerable to persecution, including women, children, and other individuals who are at risk of persecution related to their gender, gender expression, or sexual orientation.”

The order also requires the National Security Advisor, in consultation with the Secretary of State, the Secretary of Defense, the Secretary of Homeland Security, the Administrator of the United States Agency for International Development, and the Director of National Intelligence to report on climate change’s impact on migration, including forced migration and planned relocation. The report must include options for the protection and resettlement of the identified migrants affected by climate change. 

According to a CSIS study, extreme weather displaces nearly three times more people than conflict and almost nine times more than fear of persecution. This order helps plan for the possibility of an increased movement of people and consider how U.S. foreign aid can help climate-vulnerable areas.  

What does that mean for immigrants:  Until now, there were no policies to allow for someone who has been displaced by climate-related disasters such as catastrophic famine, droughts, and flooding, to apply for a visa, green card, or refugee protection in the U.S. This order will put the United States on the path to raising its refugee cap to 125,000 next year.

What Happens Next?

Although the executive orders do not immediately change any existing statutes or regulations, they are a promising starting point to reforming strict immigration policies. The next step is for the government to review proposed changes and move forward with proposed funding or legislation to securely put new laws into place for a smoother and more efficient citizenship path. 

Feature photo credit: “Joe Biden at McKinley Elementary School” by Phil Roeder is licensed under CC BY 2.0

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