President Biden is signaling not only an eagerness to reverse Trump-era immigration policies with his early executive actions but a willingness to go beyond the Obama administration.
A trio of orders signed by Biden last week seeks to make amends for the Trump administration’s family separation policy by establishing a task force dedicated to reuniting 545 children with their parents.
Biden also ordered a review of his predecessor’s public charge rule, which limited immigration opportunities for those who might need to rely on government assistance like food stamps or other social programs.
But it was Biden’s call for a sweeping review of the asylum and naturalization process — along with a pledge to try to address the root causes of Latin American migration — that excited immigration advocates.
“We’re not just rolling back back the Trump policies, which were at best superficial and ideological, but we’re going beyond the Obama administration,” said Thomas Saenz, president of Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund.
“Certainly it presents a much much more sophisticated view of the refugee and asylum issues for the Western hemisphere than we have seen.”
The new Biden administration policy puts a particular focus on the Northern Triangle, the nickname given to neighbors Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador, where in recent years migration patterns have rivaled those of Mexican nationals.
The “root causes” strategy Biden’s order calls for would funnel aid to strengthen democracy, combat gang violence and boost the economy.
“This is a much more sophisticated view of seeing the issue from the root causes and a recognition that the root causes in the Northern Triangle are in part caused by the U.S.,” Saenz said.
That seismic shift from enforcement to aid is being hailed by many immigration experts as a more realistic long-term approach.
“We’re in a situation now where we can no longer lead with heavy handed enforcement and our approach needs to change, and I think what we’ve seen from the administration is absolutely an acknowledgement of that,” said Jorge Loweree, policy director at the American Immigration Council.
Others argue the policy, which differs from the Obama years, will prove more cost effective than recent border security measures, in addition to doubling as foreign aid.
“Starting a Marshall plan for Central America is a lot cheaper than building a wall or hiring immgiration officers. It can provide jobs and security in Central America that could turn off the faucet for refugees coming to the U.S. instead of building more tubs,” said Domingo Garcia, president of the League of United Latin American Citizens.
Advocates say Biden isn’t just proposing policies that go beyond the Obama years; he’s also striking a new tone on immigration and setting higher goals.
One of his orders calls for strengthening inclusion of recently naturalized citizens, a nod to potentially reducing the fees and test requirements associated with becoming a citizen.
There are also signs the Biden administration might diverge from the Obama years by enacting policies making it easier to come to the U.S., like directing the government to consider giving those fleeing domestic or gang violence the ability to apply for asylum. Current law only protects those fleeing discrimination based on race, religion, political views and other protected classes.
Biden also called for reviving another program the Trump administration targeted for elimination, one that allows minors from the Northern Triangle to apply for refugee status.
But Biden’s orders, along with a comprehensive immigration bill Biden sent to Congress that would provide an eight-year path to citizenship for some 11 million immigrants, are sparking backlash among some congressional Republicans.
“Through these actions, President Biden has sent the message loud and clear to the world that our immigration laws can be violated without consequence,” said House Oversight and Reform Committee ranking member James Comer (R-Ky.).
“These radical, far-left immigration policies will continue to enable the humanitarian crisis at the border, place more children in peril as they are brought dangerously to the southern border, encourage more illegal immigration, and undermine the rule of law.”
Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.), who slowed the Senate’s confirmation of Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas by placing a hold on his nomination, said Biden’s nominee
had not “adequately explained how he will enforce federal law and secure the southern border.”
Garcia said Democrats will now be tested on showing that their policies are sensible.
“One of the attacks Republicans have against Democrats is that Democrats are for open borders. We have to show we’re not for open borders but for legal immigration in an orderly fashion.”
Immigration advocates argue Biden’s plans are a direct response to what they view as Trump’s failures.
“The last four years of asylum policies have been based on the premise that if we find a way to make it as difficult as possible and increase the hardship that people have to endure to get to us, people will give up or never come in first place. We’ve gone as far as to take children away from their parents at the southern border, but we’re seeing people continue to come,” Loweree said.
“It speaks to the conditions people are facing in their home country. People would not face that kind of risk if remaining in their home country weren’t such a dangerous proposition.”
That’s where advocates see a chance for Biden to treat the border differently than Trump did.
Biden’s order calls for expansion of shelter networks “to address the immediate needs of individuals who have fled their homes to seek protection elsewhere in the region.”
From Saenz’s perspective, the U.S. bears some responsibility for having contributed to a militarized Northern Triangle that is now creating refugees.
“We contributed to those conditions a lot, and not just with our drug policy but with our immigration policy,” he said.
“Pretty much everyone that’s leaving wants to get out of that situation because it’s so dangerous, and that’s as true in a war atmosphere like Syria as it is in the violent circumstances of the Northern Triangle.”
Loweree argued that Biden needs to go further than reuniting families that were separated during the Trump years.
“They also need to give considerable thought to some kind of compensation fund to provide redress for harms they faced from the previous administration,” he said.
Still, Loweree said the Biden administration has already taken great strides in a short amount of time.
“The reality is they’ve done a lot. They’ve been in office for two weeks, and they’ve done an extraordinary amount of work on immigration. It’s an indication of a new era.”