Biden signs immigration orders as Congress awaits more

U.S. President Joe Biden on Tuesday signed a second spate of orders to undo his predecessor's immigration policies, demonstrating the powers of the White House and its limitations without support from Congress.

White House has moved fast to undo many divisive Trump policies on immigration, asylum system

U.S. President Joe Biden signs executive orders on immigration reform inside the Oval Office at the White House on Tuesday. (Tom Brenner/Reuters)

U.S. President Joe Biden on Tuesday signed a second spate of orders to undo his predecessor's immigration policies, demonstrating the powers of the White House and its limitations without support from Congress.

His orders on family separation, border security and legal immigration bring to nine the number of executive actions on immigration during his first two weeks in office.

With proposed legislation to give legal status and a path to citizenship to all of the estimated 11 million people in the country who don't have it, Biden has quickly taken aim at many of former president Donald Trump's sweeping changes to deter immigration, both legal and illegal, and established a vision that is likely to far outlast his tenure if he's able to muster enough support in a deeply divided Congress.

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.

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

Alejandro Mayorkas, who was confirmed as Homeland Security secretary by the Senate on Tuesday afternoon, will lead a task force on family separation, focused largely on reuniting parents and children who remain apart. 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.

"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.

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The American Civil Liberties Union, which sued to reunite families, has asked the administration for legal status in the United States for families that have been separated, as well as financial compensation for those families, attorneys at government expense, and a halt to U.S. Customs and Border Protection's ability to separate families when a parent is deemed unfit to care for a child. ACLU attorney Lee Gelernt said he would be "extremely disappointed" if the task force limits its scope to help finding parents of the remaining 600 children.

A review of border security includes a policy to make asylum-seekers wait in Mexican border cities for hearings in U.S. immigration court. It is a step toward fulfilling a campaign pledge to end the Remain in Mexico policy, known officially as Migrant Protection Protocols, which enrolled nearly 70,000 asylum-seekers since it began in January 2019.

'Top-to-bottom review' of immigration

The White House said it will "create a humane asylum system" by rescinding or reconsidering Trump policies that caused "chaos, cruelty and confusion." It warned that it will take time, which may cause grumbling among some pro-immigration advocates.

"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."

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, noting that the journey was "very dangerous, and we are in the middle of creating a new system."

Psaki reinforced that message from the White House podium on Tuesday, saying it "remains a dangerous trip," and that "this is not the time to come to the United States."

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 makes it more difficult for people who use government benefits to obtain green cards.

The moves demonstrate that, just as Trump remade immigration policies from the White House, Biden can undo them with the stroke of a pen — some more easily than others. On his first day in office, 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.

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.

READ | Justice Department inspector general report on zero-tolerance policy, separations:

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Biden promised far-reaching changes on immigration during his campaign, but it was unclear how quickly he would tackle the lightning-rod issue. His first-day actions delighted and surprised many pro-immigration advocates who are now being asked for patience.

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

Esther Olavarria, deputy director of the White House Domestic Policy Council for immigration, said at a U.S. Conference of Mayors meeting last month that an executive order aimed at "restoring sanity at the U.S.-Mexico border" would end the Remain in Mexico policy and agreements that the Trump administration struck with Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras for the U.S. to reject asylum applicants and instead send them to those Central American countries with an opportunity to seek protection there. The asylum agreements are not explicitly mentioned in a White House statement on the orders.

Olavarria also told mayors of plans to rescind bans on people coming to the country who are deemed economic threats — an apparent reference to Trump's proclamations to block many temporary work visas and green cards while the economy recovers from a pandemic. It was not included in Tuesday's announcement.

With files from Reuters