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Biden’s changes to the immigration system explained

Rally to end incarceration and detention in Des Moines, Iowa. Photo: Jon Krieg / AFSC

Soon after taking office, President Joe Biden began making big changes, including to U.S. immigration policy. These actions work to undo some of the most harmful policies passed by the Trump administration—and lay the groundwork for a more just and humane immigration system.

We welcome these much-needed changes and the Biden administration’s swift action on these issues. Now we need to keep the momentum up to ensure that the administration continues to support immigrant communities and enact policies that respect the rights and dignity of all people. 

Here are some of the positive changes that Biden has already made and what this means for immigrant communities: 

Suspending  the “remain in Mexico” program

In January 2019, the Trump administration began implementing its “remain in Mexico” policy, which has forced tens of thousands of asylum seekers to return to Mexico—for an indefinite amount of time—while their claims are processed. Officially known as the “Migrant Protection Protocols (MPP),” the policy is a clear violation of both U.S. and international law, putting asylum seekers in further danger. Many faced violence, obstacles accessing legal services, and unsanitary conditions amid pandemic. 

On the first day of the Biden administration, the Department of Homeland Security announced it would no longer put new people into this program. Biden also issued an executive order requiring a review of MPP. Now the administration must work to bring those who are already in the MPP program to the United States to complete their asylum process in safety—and ensure the immigration legal system is prepared to resolve cases humanely and with due process.   

Reuniting families separated at the border

Biden took action to address the effects of the Trump administration’s horrific “zero tolerance” policy, which has left hundreds of children separated from their parents and guardians. 

Biden rescinded a Trump executive order that had blamed Congress for family separations and told the Department of Homeland Security to detain children and their guardians together—while leaving open the possibility of family separations in some cases. 

The president also established a "Task Force on the Reunification of Families,” which will be housed at the Department of Homeland Security and will be charged with identifying children that were separated from their families under the zero-tolerance policy, facilitating reunification and providing support services, and making recommendations to ensure that family separation doesn’t happen again.

Removing barriers to legal immigration

Biden has ordered a review of policies and guidance that may make it harder for people to access the legal immigration system, as well as recommendations to remove those barriers.

He also required a review of the cruel “public charge” policy, which restricted access to permanent residency for immigrants for using certain types of public assistance, such as SNAP (food stamps) or Medicaid.  The policy must be rescinded through the regulatory process and cannot be fixed by executive action alone.  

In addition, Biden plans to create a “Task Force on New Americans,” an interagency working group that will develop a strategy for welcoming immigrants, and review the process for naturalization with the goal of making citizenship more accessible and reduce processing time. 

Revitalizing the refugee program

The Trump administration severely weakened the U.S. refugee resettlement program, slashing the number of refugees accepted into the United States to 15,000 a year—compared with Obama-era levels of around 110,000 people in 2017. 

Biden has committed to revitalizing the refugee program and increasing the number of refugees allowed to resettle in the U.S. 125,000 in 2022. 

Rescinding the Muslim and African bans

Biden ended Trump’s cruel Muslim and African bans, which placed discriminatory travel restrictions on people from many majority-Muslim and African countries. Under the bans, people   fleeing violence, hoping to reunite with their families, access medical treatment, pursue their careers, and many more were barred from entering the United States.

Biden’s executive order rescinds the bans, orders visa processing to resume, and requires the secretary of state   to propose a way to fairly reconsider    visa applications that had been denied. The administration will also work to reform the screening and vetting of people traveling to the United States.    

To ensure that future presidents can’t issue similar discriminatory bans, Congress should pass legislation like the “No BAN Act, ” which would raise the requirements a president must meet to issue restrictions. It’s also important that the administration ensures that the reformed screening and vetting process does not increase surveillance and inappropriate use of social media   to deny people visas.   

Halting border wall construction

While in office, President Trump declared a national emergency that allowed him to reallocate funding from other priorities to build a harmful border wall. Biden, in one of his first executive actions, terminated that national emergency and halted construction on the border wall. Now the administration is working to determine which contracts it can get out of and which can be repurposed, and to develop a plan for redirecting border wall funds. 

These are important steps. However, the president must still work to repair the damage  that border wall construction has inflicted on border communities and the environment. And as the Biden administration moves money out of border wall construction, we must ensure those funds aren’t spent on surveillance or further militarization of border communities. 

Tell Congress: Stop militarization of the border region!

Preserving DACA

Biden has directed the Secretary of Homeland Security to take action to preserve the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, which protects more than 700,000 people who came to the United States as children from deportation, and gives them authorization to work in the U.S.  

This is welcome news for recipients of DACA, a program that the Trump administration continually tried to dismantle. Unfortunately, DACA continues to be challenged in the courts, and another administration could attempt to end the program again. We need congressional action to legislate permanent protections for DACA recipients, undocumented young people, and all immigrants in the U.S. 

Tell Congress: Create a roadmap to citizenship for all immigrants!

Shifting interior enforcement priorities, ending attacks on sanctuary cities 

In 2017, Trump issued an executive order that dramatically expanded immigration enforcement in the U.S. and added to the previous enforcement priorities, vastly increasing the number of people Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) could arrest and target for deportation. The order also excluded sanctuary cities from federal grants if they refused to cooperate with federal immigration enforcement agents—part of the Trump administration’s effort to punish cities that refused to carry out its anti-immigrant agenda. 

Biden revoked that  executive order and laid out immigration enforcement priorities that highlight addressing the humanitarian challenges at the southern border and adhering to due process of law—a departure from Trump’s more aggressive enforcement agenda.    

Pausing deportations and reevaluating immigration enforcement priorities

(Note: As of January 26th, a court order has delayed the pause in deportations, pending further progress on a case in Texas)

The Department of Homeland Security paused deportations for 100 days as it conducts a review of its immigration enforcement practices. It also directed its immigration enforcement agencies, ICE and Customs and Border Protection,   to prioritize people who it considers “national security threats,  ” people who crossed the border after Nov. 1, 2020, and those who have been convicted of an aggravated felony.  This does not prohibit the apprehension or detention of people who aren’t listed as a priority. 

No one should be imprisoned in immigration detention or deported—not in the next 100 days, not ever. It’s critical that we urge the new administration and Congress to end the deportation and detention pipeline for good—and stop funding abusive immigration enforcement agencies. 

Tell Congress: Stop funding cruelty against immigrants! 

Extending protections for Liberian refugees

Biden extended a deferral on deportations for about 4,000 Liberian refugees living in the U.S., allowing them more time to apply for legal permanent status. These are refugees who were granted Temporary Protected Status (TPS) in the U.S. after fleeing civil war in Liberia, and when TPS ended, were granted “Deferred Enforced Departure” status, which protected them from deportation and authorized them to work in the U.S. 

In 2019, Congress passed the Liberian Refugee Immigration Fairness provision, which gave potentially 10,000 Liberians—including individuals with DED—a pathway to permanent residency. Biden’s executive order extends DED status and work authorization for Liberians who had DED as of Jan. 10, 2021, giving them more time to apply for legal permanent status in the U.S.  


How you can get involved

These actions by President Biden are a significant step for our communities, helping to reverse some of the most harmful policies enacted by the Trump administration. Now we need permanent solutions to many of these problems, and that requires Congress to act. 

Tell Congress: Create a roadmap to citizenship for all immigrants! 


About the Author

Tori Bateman is policy advocacy coordinator in AFSC's Office of Public Policy and Advocacy. She advocates for U.S. policy that aligns with AFSC's vision of shared security.

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