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Biden signs immigration orders as Congress awaits more



WASHINGTON  — The Biden administration on Tuesday took additional steps toward immigration reform, ordering a review of asylum processing at the U.S.-Mexico border, as well as creating a task force to address the separation of families.

President Joe Biden signed three executive orders on reunifying families, border security and legal immigration — bringing the total to nine executive actions on immigration during his first two weeks in office. The moves aim to review and reverse regulations, policies and guidance of former President Donald Trump’s policies to deter immigration, both legal and illegal.

“I’m not making new law. I’m eliminating bad policy,” Biden said during a signing ceremony without taking questions.

“With the first action today, we’re going to work to undo the moral and national shame of the previous administration that literally, not figuratively, ripped children from the arms of their families. And with no plan, none whatsoever to reunify the children who are still in custody and their parents,” Biden said. “The second action addresses the root causes of migration to our Southern border. And the third action, the third order I’m going to be signing, orders a full review of the previous administration’s harmful and counterproductive immigration policies, basically across the board.”

Biden signed the following three executive orders:

  • “Reestablishment of an interagency task force for the reunification of families.”
  • “Creating a comprehensive regional framework to address the causes of migration and to manage migration throughout north and Central America and to provide a safe and orderly processing of asylum seekers at the United States border.”
  • “Restoring the faith in our legal immigration system and strengthening immigration inclusion efforts for new Americans.”

Alejandro Mayorkas, whose nomination as Homeland Security secretary was confirmed Tuesday afternoon in a 56-43 Senate vote, will lead a task force on family separation, focused largely on reuniting parents and children who remain apart.

The task force, made up of government officials, will face a daunting challenge trying to track down parents separated from their children. It is unclear how many, but about 5,500 children have been identified in court documents as having been separated during Trump’s presidency, including about 600 whose parents have yet to be found by a court-appointed committee, according to a January court filing.

The children are living with relatives or in foster care, according to an attorney representing plaintiffs in the litigation in a related case. The task force could also include separations prior to the official launch of Trump’s “zero tolerance” policy in April 2018, the official said.

“The task force will report regularly to the President and recommend steps to prevent such tragedies from occurring again,” the Biden administration said in a statement.

The previous administration’s “zero tolerance” policy meant that any adult caught crossing the border illegally would be prosecuted for illegal entry. Because children cannot be jailed with their family members, families were separated and children were taken into custody by Health and Human Services, which manages unaccompanied children at the border.

Biden’s executive orders on Tuesday will not address repealing a coronavirus-era order, known as “Title 42.” The order was issued under the Trump administration and allows U.S. authorities to expel almost all people caught crossing the border illegally.

Biden also mandated a review of the Migrant Protection Protocols (MPP), a controversial program also known as Remain in Mexico policy that pushed 65,000 asylum seekers back to Mexico to wait for U.S. court hearings since it began in January 2019. Most returned to their home countries but some remained in a makeshift camp near the Mexican border.

The Biden administration has already stopped adding people to the program but has not yet outlined how it will process the claims of those already enrolled. Tuesday’s announcements did not address the reinstatement of a U.S. refugee resettlement program after dramatic cuts under Trump.

The White House said it will “create a humane asylum system” but warned it may take some time.

“The situation at the border will not transform overnight, due in large part to the damage done over the last four years,” the White House said in a statement. “But the President is committed to an approach that keeps our country safe, strong, and prosperous and that also aligns with our values.”

Chad Wolf, former acting U.S. Department of Homeland Security secretary under Trump, said in an interview that halting the MPP program was a mistake because it had been an effective deterrent to illegal immigration.

“If you do have a surge (of migrants), you’re taking one of your tools off the table,” he said in reference to the program.

Roberta Jacobson, a top Biden aide on border issues, asked Spanish-language media on Friday to discourage audiences from coming to the U.S. border. “It is not the moment,” she said in Spanish, adding that the journey was “very dangerous, and we are in the middle of creating a new system.”

The White House will also do a “top-to-bottom review of recent regulations, policies, and guidance that have set up barriers to our legal immigration system.” It will include a review of Trump’s “public charge rule,” which made it harder for poorer immigrants who use government benefits to obtain permanent residency,

On his first day in office, Jan. 20, Biden halted work on a border wall with Mexico, lifted a travel ban on several predominantly Muslim countries and reversed plans to exclude people in the country illegally from the 2020 census. He also ordered efforts to preserve the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, known as DACA, which has shielded hundreds of thousands of people who came to the U.S. as children from deportation.

Biden has utilized executive actions but more lasting changes must pass Congress, a daunting job that Trump and his predecessors Barack Obama and George W. Bush failed to achieve. Also on his first day in office, Biden proposed legislation to give legal status and a path to citizenship to everyone in the country who doesn’t have it — an estimated 11 million people.

Logistical issues, the complex and regional immigration demands, as well as opposition from both sides of the immigration debate, have long plagued sweeping immigration reform.

Lawsuits could also potentially slow down Biden’s agenda. A federal judge last week temporarily blocked one of his first immigration moves – a 100-day pause on many deportations – after the Republican-led state of Texas sought an injunction.

It is unclear when Biden will lift bans on many temporary work visas and green cards that took effect after the coronavirus pandemic struck— issued by the Trump administration with the goal of protecting American jobs — or when he will stop allowing authorities to immediately expel people at the border on public health grounds without an opportunity to seek asylum.

The latest batch of orders are light on immediate changes, though White House spokeswoman Jen Psaki said Biden will have more to share in the future and shifts will take time.

A broad range of businesses opposed the ban on temporary foreign workers. In October, a federal judge in California blocked Trump’s ban as it applied to hundreds of thousands of U.S. businesses that fought the policy in court.

Trump won the presidency in 2016 while making border security a major campaign promise. If Biden fails to prevent surges in illegal immigration at the U.S.-Mexico border, he could possibly give ammunition to Republicans in the 2022 congressional elections, said Sarah Pierce, a policy analyst with the Washington-based Migration Policy Institute.

The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this article: Reporting by Reuters’ Ted Hesson and Steve Holland; AP’s Elliot Spagat.

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