President Joe Biden announced executive actions Tuesday ordering the review and potential reversal of the Trump administration's deterrent policies along the Mexico border and the barriers they created in the legal immigration system.
The directives also create a Homeland Security task force to reunite families separated by President Donald Trump's zero-tolerance border crackdown.
The latest orders are light on immediate changes, though White House spokeswoman Jen Psaki said Biden will have more details 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.
"President Biden's strategy is centered on the basic premise that our country is safe and stronger and more prosperous with a safe, orderly and humane immigration system that welcomes immigrants, keeps families together and allows people -- both newly arrived immigrants and people who have lived here for generations -- to more fully contribute to our country," a senior official told reporters.
Although officials described in broad terms their intent to repudiate the previous administration's policies, they acknowledged that some of Trump's border control measures will remain in place for the time being, in one sign of their concern about a new migration wave building in the middle of the pandemic.
Biden's orders will "review," though not cancel, the Migrant Protection Protocols, also known as the "Remain in Mexico" program, that sent more than 60,000 asylum-seekers to wait outside U.S. territory while their claims are processed in immigration courts. The Biden administration has stopped placing asylum seekers in the program, but applicants with pending cases will not be allowed to immediately enter the United States while officials figure out how to dismantle the program.
The president's latest orders also leave intact the emergency pandemic measure known as Title 42 that allows border authorities to rapidly "expel" back to Mexico those who cross the border illegally. Department of Homeland Security officials have said the measures are necessary to prevent the spread of the coronavirus inside U.S. border stations and immigration jails, while immigrant advocates have urged an immediate halt to the expulsions, saying they leave families and children vulnerable to criminals in dangerous border cities.
Biden officials said they intend to replace Trump's border measures with more humane programs, but they need more time.
Detentions and arrests along the border have exceeded 70,000 for each of the past four months, one of the busiest stretches in more than a decade, according to the latest statistics and projections from the U.S. Customs and Border Protection agency. Riot police in Guatemala forcefully broke up a large caravan of Hondurans last month, but many of those people are expected to find their way north in smaller groups, immigration officials say.
Roberta Jacobson, a top Biden aide on border issues, asked Spanish-language media outlets on Friday to discourage audiences from heading 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."
Psaki reinforced that message from the White House podium on Tuesday, saying it "remains a dangerous trip" and, "This is not the time to come to the United States."
Biden officials said they have a plan to transform the migration dynamics along the Mexico border by addressing "root causes" of immigration from Central America and helping vulnerable groups find safe refuge closer to home. The administration plans to restore an Obama-era program allowing young people to apply to legally reunite with parents already living in the United States, instead of risking a dangerous journey with a smuggler.
"President Trump was so focused on the wall that he did nothing to address the root causes of why people are coming to our southern border," said one official, who called the barrier a "limited, wasteful and naive strategy -- and it failed."
Alejandro Mayorkas, whose nomination as Homeland Security secretary was confirmed Tuesday by the Senate, will lead the task force on family separation, focused largely on reuniting parents and children who remain apart.
Between July 2017 and June 2018, the Trump administration separated at least 5,500 children from their parents along the border in an attempt to deter migration. The American Civil Liberties Union says that at least 1,000 of those families are likely to remain separated with parents scattered mostly across Central America and children living with relatives in the United States.
"The first order of the task force will be to get a better handle on these numbers and start reuniting children with their parents," said the senior administration official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity.
Because of poor government record-keeping, it remains unclear how many parents were deported without their children and where they are currently living, a major challenge facing any reunion effort. Attorneys and advocates have been unable to find hundreds of separated families, in some cases sending search parties into remote parts of Central America in attempts to locate them.
Many of those parents have spent the past two or three years trying to raise their children over video calls, unsure if or when they would ever be together again. Some returned to the U.S. border in hopes of finding their children but were once again apprehended by immigration agents and deported a second time.
Advocates have emphasized the need not only to reunite families, but also to provide them with protection from deportation and a path to citizenship. When a court ordered the Trump administration to reunite families in 2018, many reunited parents were not given any legal status, making them immediately deportable and raising the prospect of re-separation.
"We have entrusted Joe Biden to keep his word to bring these families together and help make them whole," said Carol Anne Donohoe, a managing attorney at Al Otro Lado, who is working with 32 separated families. "That means resettling these families in the United States, giving them legal status, and resources to help them heal. We also demand accountability so that Family Separation doesn't go down as yet another stain on this nation's history that is never redressed."
PART OF A TREND
Biden's directives build on other moves his administration has taken to annul several of Trump's signature policies. He has halted construction of Trump's $16 billion border wall, repealed the ban on travelers from several majority-Muslim nations and ordered a 100-day "pause" on deportations of most migrants already living in the United States.
A federal judge in Texas last week placed a restraining order on Biden's deportation pause, allowing the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency to go back to the status quo while the court considers a motion by the state of Texas seeking an injunction.
Biden officials described the actions as a warm-up to additional measures in coming months. Immigrant advocacy groups are urging swift action, but Trump officials layered hundreds of immigration restrictions into regulations, administrative decisions and agreements that will all be competing for Biden's attention.
"There is hope and help coming, but it will take us a little bit of time to implement that," a senior administration official said during a media briefing.
Biden also faces solidifying GOP opposition to his immigration proposals.
The Trump administration attempted to erect obstructions to Biden's plans before he took office, according to a whistleblower complaint filed Monday.
An unidentified federal employee's complaint accuses a former Trump administration official of "gross mismanagement, gross waste of government funds and abuse of authority" for instituting last-minute agreements that could hinder Biden's efforts to rein in deportations, and urges officials to quickly rescind them.
The complaint said former acting deputy homeland security secretary Ken Cuccinelli brokered the agreements with an Immigration and Customs Enforcement union that had endorsed Trump's bids for president. The agreements, signed the day before Trump left office, allegedly gave the union "extraordinary" bargaining power over even minor policy changes, as well as generous time for union activities that would cost taxpayers millions of dollars, the complaint said.
David Z. Seide, the whistleblower's lawyer and senior counsel of the Government Accountability Project, a nonpartisan legal organization, said that if the Biden administration does not exercise its authority under federal law to revoke the agreements within 30 days, or by Feb. 17, then the new rules will take effect.
"Time is of the essence," he said in the letter.
The complaint urged the homeland security inspector general, congressional homeland security committees and the U.S. Office of Special Counsel to investigate.
Information for this article was contributed by Nick Miroff, Seung Min Kim, Maria Sacchetti and Kevin Sieff of The Washington Post; and by Elliot Spagat and Josh Boak of The Associated Press.