WASHINGTON — President Joe Biden on Tuesday signed the latest in a series of executive orders aimed at dismantling the Trump administration’s hard-line immigration policies.
Biden ordered the creation of a federal task force focused on reuniting migrant children separated from their parents at the U.S. southern border under former President Donald Trump’s "zero tolerance" policy. He also ordered his administration to review Trump-era policies that made it more difficult for migrants to apply for asylum in the United States.
"We're going to work to undo the moral and national shame of the previous administration that literally not figuratively ripped children from the arms of their families, their mothers and fathers, at the border, and with no plan, none whatsoever, to reunify the children," Biden said before signing the order in the Oval Office.
Biden acknowledged "a lot of talk" about the number of executive orders he has signed in his first two weeks in office and defended his actions, saying, "I’m not making new law, I’m eliminating bad policy." He described Trump’s own executive actions on immigration as "counterproductive to who we are as a country."
Biden was joined by newly confirmed Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas.
Mayorkas, who was confirmed by the Senate on Tuesday, will head the family reunification task force, and first lady Jill Biden also will play a central role in the panel.
A senior administration official speaking to reporters before Biden's signing ceremony said "the task force will make recommendations to the president and federal agencies regarding steps that they can take to reunify families" and "will report regularly to the president and recommend steps to prevent such tragedies from occurring again."
The Trump administration had previously indicated in federal court filings that at least 5,500 children were separated along the U.S. border with Mexico between July 2017 and June 2018. A court-appointed panel reported in December that the U.S. government has yet to locate the parents of more than 600 children.
At the height of the policy, the Trump administration scrambled to find locations to process and hold the children, eventually placing the bulk in a patchwork of facilities across the country from border state detention centers to social service centers such as MercyFirst in Syosset. The Long Island based nonprofit provided shelter to more than a dozen of the separated children until their parents or relatives already living in the United States were eventually located.
White House press secretary Jen Psaki, speaking at Tuesday’s daily press briefing, said the task force will issue a report in 120 days to update the progress of the reunification effort. But she declined to say whether the Biden administration will allow parents who have already been deported to return and stay with their children.
"I don't think any parent can look at what's happened to those kids over the last couple of years and not feel that we should do everything in our power to get those kids back with their parents," Psaki said.
A second order signed by Biden on Wednesday looks to restore the country’s asylum process, which was dramatically overhauled under Trump. The Trump administration instituted a "Remain in Mexico" policy that required migrants to stay in Mexico as they awaited the outcome of their asylum petition in U.S. immigration courts. Thousands of migrants remain in limbo in Mexico, many living in squalid encampments.
A third order directs federal agencies to conduct a "top-to-bottom review" of Trump-era policies "that have set up barriers to our legal immigration system." Senior administration officials cited the Trump administration’s changes to the "public charge" rule that essentially denied residency status to those immigrants who were likely to require federal assistance such as food stamps.
The orders signed Tuesday are the latest executive actions taken by Biden to roll back Trump’s immigration agenda. On his first day in office, Biden signed orders protecting the Obama-era Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, which shields young undocumented immigrants from deportation, reversed the travel ban on mostly Muslim-majority countries, and suspended construction on Trump’s border wall with Mexico.
Biden has encountered at least one legal setback, after a Trump-appointed federal judge in Texas temporarily blocked his 100-day pause on deportations.