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Biden Announces Big Immigration Law Changes, Part 1

WASHINGTON, DC - JANUARY 21: U.S. President Joe Biden signs executive orders as Vice President Kamala Harris looks on during an event at the State Dining Room of the White House January 21, 2021 in Washington, DC. President Biden delivered remarks on his administration�  s COVID-19 response, and signed executive orders and other presidential actions. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)
By Andrew Leonatti on January 22, 2021 9:29 AM

Immigration was the hot-button issue throughout Donald Trump's presidency. He stepped up deportations, reduced the number of visas available, and closed the door to most refugees.

With the stroke of a pen, however, new President Joe Biden is seeking to quickly undo some of those changes. This post will focus on these quick changes. We will look at Biden's proposed legislative changes to immigration laws in a future post.

Day One Immigration Executive Orders

Biden signed a handful of immigration-related executive orders (EOs) during his first hours in office, making changes that do not require approval from Congress. While some are more ceremonial in nature, they signal a sea change in U.S. immigration policy for the next four years.

The orders include:

  • Ending the "Muslim Ban": One of Trump's earliest and most controversial EOs banned the arrival of immigrants and visitors from Syria, Libya, Iran, Yemen, Chad, and Somalia. The order survived Supreme Court scrutiny, but Biden's new EO instructs the State Department to immediately begin processing visa requests for residents from the affected countries.
  • Stopping the border wall: Calling the construction of a wall along the U.S.-Mexican border "not a serious policy solution," an EO from Biden immediately halts construction of the in-progress wall.
  • Stopping the punishment of "sanctuary cities": Trump's EO withholding most federal funds from "sanctuary cities" — local jurisdictions where law enforcement does not cooperate with federal immigration authorities — was already the subject of a permanent injunction. Biden's new EO formally ends the practice and along with it the Trump administration's policy of quickly rounding up immigrants convicted of crimes and those who have overstayed visas.
  • Extending protected status for Liberians: Biden's EO extends until June 30, 2022, the ability of Liberian immigrants living in the United States under Temporary Protected Status (TPS) or Deferred Enforced Departure (DED) to maintain their employment authorization as they seek green cards to become permanent residents (green card holders).
  • Including undocumented immigrants in the Census: The Trump administration attempted to exclude undocumented immigrants from the 2020 Census, a move that would have had a large effect on the drawing of Congressional districts and votes in the Electoral College. While Trump's EO seemed unlikely to survive a Supreme Court challenge, Biden's EO puts a stop to the policy.
  • "Strengthening" DACA: Despite a Supreme Court ruling last summer that stopped the Trump administration from ending the program protecting undocumented immigrants who came to the U.S. as children, the administration continued to reject new applicants to the program. Biden's EO protects the program and calls on Congress to enshrine DACA into law.

Deportations Paused, 'Remain in Mexico' Policy Ends

In a memo issued by the Department of Homeland Security after the inauguration, the agency announced it was pausing all deportations for 100 days except for terrorism suspects, those who arrived after November 1, 2020, and other special circumstances.

Practically, this means for 100 days, those who have overstayed their visas or crossed the border illegally should not fear being apprehended. However, this pause is for DHS to conduct a review of policies, which means immigration raids could start back up at the end of the 100-day period.

DHS also announced the end of the Trump administration's "remain in Mexico" policy, which required asylum seekers at the southern border to remain on the Mexico side while the federal government processed their cases. COVID-related border-crossing restrictions remain in place, and DHS instructed those already waiting in Mexico to remain there. However, new asylum seekers who reach the U.S. will not be sent back to Mexico.

What Does it All Mean?

The EOs and policy changes signal that the Biden administration is serious about undoing many of Trump's hard-line immigration policies.

A word of caution, however: the Biden administration does not want a new rush at the southern border. Biden National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan said that it "will take months to be fully up and running in terms of being able to do the kind of asylum processing that we want to be able to do."

Immigrants and their family members should exercise patience while remembering that they do have legal rights and protections that they can assert if they are facing deportation.

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