President Joe Biden on Tuesday signed three executive orders to start the complicated process of rolling back Trump-era restrictions on immigration, frustrating attorneys and advocates who are pleading with the administration to go faster for the sake of their clients.
The executive orders will create a task force to review the Trump administration’s separation of families at the border and an extensive analysis of asylum processing and the public charge rule — described as a wealth test for immigrants seeking green cards.
The orders came on the same day Alejandro Mayorkas, a former top Obama administration official, was sworn in as the first Latino and immigrant to run the Department of Homeland Security after the US Senate voted to confirm his nomination.
"We want to put in place an immigration process here that can — that is humane, that is moral, that considers applications for refugees, applications for people to come to — into this country, at the border, in a way that treats people as human beings," White House press secretary Jen Psaki told reporters. "That's going to take some time. It's not going to happen overnight.”
But immigration advocates say time is precious for asylum- seekers who have been forced to wait in squalid border camps, crowded shelters, and apartments in Mexico while their cases are considered in the US.
A Human Rights First database has tracked at least 1,314 public reports of rape, torture, kidnapping, and other violence against asylum-seekers caught up in the Trump-era Migrant Protection Protocols (MPP).
Linda Rivas, executive director of Las Americas Immigrant Advocacy Center, said they've been receiving more calls from desperate clients in Mexico who want to know what will happen to them and their immigration hearings.
“That is not fair to them — pain, suffering, hunger, and violence will continue while the administration reviews what to do next,” Rivas told BuzzFeed News. “We continue to urge them to act as quickly as they can. These people cannot continue to wait."
Sarah Pierce, an analyst at the Migration Policy Institute, said Biden’s executive orders won’t lead to many immediate changes, but they will initiate processes that could result in significant improvements, including creating a more robust definition of asylum, phased entries for migrants stuck in Remain in Mexico, rescinding public charge, and streamlining the process to apply for citizenship.”
The executive order also called for the Department of Homeland Security to stop implementing two controversial pilot programs — the Humanitarian Asylum Review Process (HARP) and Prompt Asylum Claim Review (PACR) — that sought to quickly deport Mexican and Central American asylum-seekers at the southern border.
One executive order established a family separation task force to identify and reunify all children separated from their parents by the Trump administration.
A senior administration official declined to commit to a specific way of reuniting the families, saying it will depend on the individual cases. Some advocates have been pushing for the government to allow deported parents to return to the US and provide them with a path to legal permanent residency.
In mid-January, court filings in a federal family separation lawsuit against the government revealed that lawyers still hadn't been able to find the parents of 611 immigrant children.
For now, the task force will begin working on a set of recommendations for how best to reunify families while it also searches for those parents. Nearly 400 of them are believed to have been deported without their children and about 200 are suspected of being in the US.
A second executive order called for reviewing several of Trump's policies that made it difficult for immigrants to seek asylum in the US, including the MPP, which forced thousands of immigrants to wait in dangerous Mexican border cities.
Linda Corchado, an immigration attorney in El Paso, Texas, said the border has suffered the brunt of the Trump-era programs.
"As attorneys, our work needs to mean something, but it can't with so many mechanisms in place that diminish our advocacy," Corchado said. “If what the Biden administration truly seeks is equitable access to justice, we cannot wait another day as yet another asylum-seeker is illegally turned away by Border Patrol agents on our border, while others are subject to further harms in MPP.”
In his executive order, Biden said Mayorkas should consider a phased strategy for allowing immigrants subjected to MPP into the US “for further processing of their asylum claims.” That suggests the administration is open to allowing immigrants and asylum-seekers enrolled in the so-called Remain in Mexico program to be allowed into the US to fight their cases. But advocates said the longer it takes for that process to begin, the longer immigrants are subjected to dangerous conditions.
The Biden administration has stopped enrolling people into MPP, but that still leaves thousands of immigrants with pending hearings waiting south of the border. The program has sent more than 70,000 immigrants and asylum-seekers to Mexico while their cases are adjudicated by a US immigration judge, according to an analysis from the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse (TRAC) at Syracuse University.
While there are 21,557 MPP cases pending, a report from the Robert Strauss Center for International Security and Law at the University of Texas at Austin said it was impossible to estimate how many of those immigrants are still waiting in Mexican border cities.
Shortly after the election, advocacy groups provided the Biden administration with a roadmap of how to unwind MPP. Among those groups was HIAS, a Jewish American nonprofit that provides aid and assistance to refugees and asylum-seekers. Andrew Geibel, policy counsel for HIAS, said they were told the White House had taken their plan under consideration.
"There's this realization that ending MPP is a complicated process and takes time," Geibel said. "We trust the administration will work very hard to get it done."
Biden also ordered the government to consider reversing the Trump administration’s decision to end an Obama-era program that allowed Central American children to be reunited with their parents in the US. The program, a senior administration official said, helped more than 1,400 children to enter the US legally and safely.
The executive order also called for a review of Trump’s "safe third country” agreements with El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala to provide US-bound asylum-seekers protection instead. Secretary of State Antony Blinken also said in a statement that the US "intends to suspend and terminate" the bilateral agreements.
The third executive order directed the secretary of state, attorney general, and the Homeland Security secretary to review regulations and other agency actions that may be inconsistent with “strategies that promote integration, inclusion, and citizenship” of immigrants.
The order also called for an immediate review of the Trump administration's public charge rule, which allows the government to deny permanent residency to immigrants who officials believe are likely to use public benefits. Biden also ordered officials to develop a plan that would eliminate barriers and improve the existing naturalization process.
“Much of the success behind this [executive order] will be in the details, said Shoba Sivaprasad Wadhia, a professor at Penn State Law. “But this first step, days after the inauguration, is important and signals that the Biden administration is willing to consider all the tools in the executive branch toolbox to make long-overdue changes to our asylum system.”