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Biden Signs Immigration Executive Orders, Establishes Task Force to Reunite Separated Families

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President Biden signed three executive orders related to immigration on Tuesday. His aides said work to reverse his predecessor's immigration policies has only just begun. (Saul Loeb/AFP via Getty Images)

President Biden signed three executive orders on Tuesday that he said he would lead to a more "fair, orderly, humane" immigration system, including one that would begin the difficult process of reuniting migrant children separated from their parents after crossing the United States border.

"There's a lot of talk, with good reason, about the number of executive orders that I've signed. I'm not making new law — I'm eliminating bad policy," Biden told reporters in the Oval Office before signing three actions to begin to roll back former President Donald Trump's hard-line immigration measures.

One of the orders creates a task force to find ways to reunite children in the U.S. with their parents who have been deported without them — something Biden said was a "moral and national shame."

The job is made challenging by a lack of records. Details of how reunifications will happen are still to be determined. The task force will make recommendations on how to do it, working with representatives of families and other stakeholders.

The task force will issue a report on its progress in 120 days, and every 60 days thereafter, White House press secretary Jen Psaki told reporters.

But advocates said urgent action is needed.

"What we need now is an immediate commitment to specific remedies, including reunification in the U.S., permanent legal status, and restitution for all of the 5,500-plus families separated by the Trump administration," said the ACLU's Lee Gelernt, who fought the issue in court.

"Anything short of that will be extremely troubling given that the U.S. government engaged in deliberate child abuse," Gelernt said in a statement.

Officials who previewed the executive actions to reporters said change won't happen overnight. In fact, more actions are almost certain to follow. "It takes time to review everything, so we are starting with these right now, but that doesn't mean it's the end of it," one of the officials said.

Confronting a Deep Lack of Trust

Cathleen Caron, founder and director of Justice in Motion, a U.S.-based nonprofit working to reunify separated families, emphasized how important it is that Biden's task force plans to work with representatives of families who were separated from their children.

She said many of those families have difficulty trusting people from the United States — and especially the government — after everything that has happened to them.

"They were deeply, deeply scarred by having their children taken away," she said. "So they don't have any reason to believe the U.S. government is going to do anything to help them. Why should they, right?"


Caron said relying on trusted partners and advocates in separated families' countries of origin will be key.

"What we want are partners that will support what the affected migrant families need and want," she said. "Partners in the countries of origin who are from there and have been communicating with these families... And the families themselves. They need to be at the center of this so the families aren't unintentionally traumatized [and] hurt again."

As to one possible avenue for beginning to rebuild trust with separated families? University of San Francisco law and migration studies Professor Bill Hing suggested offering visas to parents who were deported to return to the U.S.

"We've damaged them. And there are visas in our law already, for example, [for] victims of crime, victims of domestic violence... Well, why not a visa for someone who has been victimized by the United States government?" Hing said. "That might add some incentives. And if you couple that with most likely much needed mental health counseling, regular health counseling, of course, they all need that."

Related Coverage

Restoring Asylum

A second order Biden signed Tuesday looks at how to address the surge of migrants seeking asylum in the U.S. in recent years and will look at how to replace the Migrant Protection Protocols program — what Trump referred to as "Remain in Mexico."

Biden suspended that program on his first day in office. He has vowed to help countries in Central America address the underlying causes of migration. But the administration wants to restore the asylum system, officials said — and do something to help people stuck in camps at the border. The details of how that will happen are not yet clear.

"We want to put in place an immigration process here that is humane, that is moral, that considers applications for refugees, applications for people to come into this country at the border in a way that treat people as human beings. That's going to take some time. It's not going to happen overnight," Psaki told reporters.

The third order requires agencies to do a "top-to-bottom review of recent regulations, policies and guidance that have set up barriers to our legal immigration system." The first one to go: Trump's "public charge" rule, which prevented immigrants from getting permanent resident or "green card" status if they had or were likely to require public benefits such as housing subsidies.

Advocacy groups said ending the public charge rule would help immigrants struggling with health care and food insecurity amid the COVID-19 crisis.

The new administration is under pressure from immigration activists who are worried that reforms will stall as Biden rushes to deal with the response to the health and economic crises caused by the COVID-19 pandemic — as well as climate change and racial equity priorities.

Biden sent a sweeping immigration legislative proposal to Congress the day he was sworn into office, but it's unclear how quickly the plan may be considered.

This story includes reporting from NPR's Franco Ordoñez and Joel Rose, and KQED's Michelle Wiley.

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