President Joe Biden signed three executive orders related to immigration on Tuesday afternoon ahead of a swearing-in ceremony for the new Department of Homeland Security (DHS) secretary Alejandro Mayorkas. The three orders take aim at controversial policies enacted by the Trump Administration, and will include the creation of a task force to reunify an estimated 611 children who still remain separated from their parents more than two years years after the Trump Administration’s “Zero Tolerance” policy.
The orders, announced by the White House in a statement Tuesday morning, will also begin to implement “a comprehensive three-part plan for safe, lawful, and orderly migration,” including a review of the Migrant Protection Protocols (MPP), also known as the “Remain in Mexico” policy. They also include reestablishing the Task Force on New Americans and a review of “regulations, policies, and guidance that have set up barriers to our legal immigration system,” including a review of the Trump Administration’s Public Charge rule.
The orders come a day after the Biden Administration’s Department of Justice asked the Supreme Court to cancel oral arguments for lawsuits pertaining to Trump’s border wall and MPP, which were scheduled to take place later this month. The Supreme Court has not yet responded to the request.
Some immigration advocates and legal organizations on Tuesday applauded the new executive orders, but added that they are only a first step toward undoing many of the hardline immigration policies set by the Trump Administration. Ian Kysel, visiting assistant clinical professor of law at Cornell Law School, said in a statement that time will tell how far Biden’s steps to undo these policies will go. He also noted “that time is lived differently by the asylum-seeker camped out in dangerous conditions on the southern border, the immigrant family waiting in a detention center in the midst of the pandemic, and the deported migrant tens of thousands of miles from their loved ones in the U.S.”
Here’s what to know about the three executive orders signed Tuesday.
Family reunification task force
On the campaign trail in October, Biden promised that on day one of his administration he would create a task force to begin tracking down the hundreds of parents who had still not yet been located after being separated from their children. Though it didn’t happen on his first day in office, the President took a first step toward fulfilling that promise on Feb. 2, signing an executive order that to create a new task force that “will work across the U.S. government, with key stakeholders and representatives of impacted families, and with partners across the hemisphere to find parents and children separated by the Trump Administration,” according to a fact sheet released by the White House on Tuesday.
For years, organizations like Justice in Motion and Kids In Need of Defense (KIND) have been working to reunify families who were separated before and during the Trump Administration’s “Zero Tolerance” policy, which was intended to deter unauthorized migration and prosecute all illegal entries into the U.S. The groups say however, that the U.S. government has provided them with outdated or inaccurate contact information for many of the parents, making it difficult to locate them.
Complicating the challenging task of reunification is the fact that many parents were deported without their children, many families are distrustful of the government because of their experience being separated, and the COVID-19 pandemic has slowed on-the-ground searches for parents.
Despite those obstacles, Cathleen Caron, executive director of Justice in Motion, a legal aid nonprofit that has been conducting on-the-ground searches for deported parents in Mexico, Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras and Nicaragua, says she’s optimistic the remaining missing parents will be located in a few months with the creation of Biden’s task force.
“Trump committed the harm,” Caron tells TIME. “We want Biden to start healing the harm, and he has the power to do that.”
Jennifer Podkul, vice president of policy and advocacy at KIND, an organization that provides legal representation for children, including those who were separated from their parents at the border, tells TIME that this type of interagency task force could lead to new data and information on the remaining missing parents.
“The government has not been forthcoming with all the information they have,” Podkul says. “Hopefully with a new task force that has the authority to bring different agencies to the table…we’ll get information that we didn’t have before.”
Both Caron and Podkul say if the government truly wants to reunify separated families, the deported parents should be offered a pathway to citizenship in the U.S. to be with their children. It could incentivize parents to come forward if they are mistrustful of the government and feel their children are safer remaining in the U.S. without them, she says.
The task force will consider recommendations for the issuance of visas “or other immigration benefits, as appropriate and consistent with applicable law,” but does not specify which parents would be considered for these benefits.
“We really want to see a clear detailed commitment from the Biden Administration to bring the families back,” Caron says. “For them to stay here in safety and start the healing process with their family.”
Asylum and migration to the U.S.
The Biden Administration announced on Jan. 21 that it will stop enrolling people into Trump Administration’s Migrant Protections Protocols program, which requires asylum-seekers to wait out their claims in Mexico. Still, thousands of asylum-seekers who are already in the program continue to wait for an end to MPP. Many of those enrolled in MPP stay close to the border in shelters or tent encampments, exposed to nature and violent cartels.
Tuesday’s executive order did not announce an end to MPP, but the White House said in a public statement that the executive order would direct the new DHS secretary to review the program. “The situation at the border will not transform overnight, due in large part to the damage done over the last four years. But the President is committed to an approach that keeps our country safe, strong, and prosperous and that also aligns with our values,” the White House statement said.
The executive order also aims to rethink asylum procedures and roll back some of the “most damaging policies adopted by the prior administration.” The White House statement did not specify which policies it considers “most damaging.”
The legal immigration process
The third executive order announced Tuesday focuses more on the legal immigration system in the U.S., and rescinds a Trump Administration memo requiring family sponsors to repay the government if relatives receive public benefits. It will also begin the review of the Trump Administration’s Public Charge rule, which began on Aug. 14, 2019. The rule faced many legal challenges, but ultimately the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit decided the rule could be implemented in Sept. 2020. Ultimately, it means applications for some immigrants, including those wishing to seek permanent legal residency, could be rejected it if the immigrant received public benefits for more than 12 months within any 36-month period and if “at the time of application for admission or adjustment of status, is likely at any time to become a public charge,” according to the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.
The Tuesday executive order will also include re-establishing a Task Force on New Americans, which previously existed during the Obama Administration and focused on better integrating immigrants and refugees into American life.