President Biden signed three executive orders on Tuesday evening that will reverse controversial policies from the previous administration, including one that resulted in the separation of migrant children from their parents.
Biden made it clear during the signing that he was not creating new immigration policies with the executive orders, but reversing those crafted under the Trump administration.
“I’m not making new law,” he said to reporters during the signing. “I’m eliminating bad policy.”
Fulfilling a promise Biden made during his campaign, one of the executive orders will eliminate the Trump administration’s “zero tolerance” policy, meant to deter immigrants from crossing the border, and instead create a task force to help reunite parents with their children.
The leader of the biggest immigrants’ rights organization in the Mid-Atlantic called the executive orders “a step in the right direction.”
“Rectifying the harm that the previous president caused to our immigrant communities is a step in the right direction – a directive to the country to embrace the immigrant community sent right from the bully pulpit,” said Gustavo Torres, executive director of CASA, which is based in Hyattsville.
Under the Trump administration, more than 5,500 immigrant families were separated. A recent court filing found that the parents of 628 migrant children were still separated.
“This task force will work across the U.S. government, with key stakeholders and representatives of impacted families, and with partners across the hemisphere to find parents and children separated by the Trump Administration,” according to a White House news release.
The signing of the orders came just after the Senate confirmation of Alejandro Nicholas Mayorkas to be secretary of Homeland Security, the agency in charge of immigration law, in a 56-43 vote.
Republican Sens. Rob Portman of Ohio, Susan Collins of Maine, Shelley Moore Capito of West Virginia, Mitt Romney of Utah and Lisa Murkowski and Dan Sullivan of Alaska voted with all 50 Democrats to confirm Mayorkas.
Mayorkas is the first Latino and immigrant to lead the agency.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) in a statement praised the executive orders.
“These Executive Actions honor our values by reunifying separated families, reforming our asylum process and promoting inclusion of new Americans into our communities,” she said.
“And they restore sanity and common sense to our immigration system — replacing the chaos and cruelty of the Trump approach with stepped-up and more constructive engagement with our partners in the region to address the root causes of migration.”
House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.) said in a statement that he looked forward to working with the Biden administration in fixing the country’s immigration and asylum system.
“America was founded as a place of refuge and opportunity for those seeking a better life,” he said.
Biden’s second executive order will review reasons for migration, work with regional partners to provide protection for asylum seekers and will “ensure that Central American refugees and asylum seekers have access to legal avenues to the United States.”
“The situation at the border will not transform overnight, due in large part to the damage done over the last four years,” according to the White House. “But the President is committed to an approach that keeps our country safe, strong, and prosperous and that also aligns with our values.”
The third executive order re-establishes a Task Force on New Americans, which will help establish that the U.S. “legal immigration system operates fairly and efficiently.”
Juliana Macedo do Nascimento, the state and local policy manager for United We Dream, an immigrant advocacy group, said in an interview that she’s hoping the Biden administration continues to work on progressive immigration reform, since these orders are mostly designed to review and set up task forces rather than implement policy.
She pointed to one of Biden’s executive orders that will review a policy enacted by the Trump administration to punish immigrants for using social services such as WIC, food assistance for women and children. The public charge rule was created under DHS in 2019 and could deny immigrants access to green cards if they receive public benefits such as housing or food assistance.
“It was a cruel policy that was designed to instill fear in immigrant communities,” she said.
Macedo do Nascimento said with Mayorkas confirmed to lead DHS, she’s hoping he puts in place a clear timeline for more Trump policies to be reversed and for new immigration and asylum policies to be put in place.
“We understand that the Trump administration left a big, tangled web of terrible policies that will take a long time to untangle and undo, so we appreciate the new work that the new administration is putting in but we do also want to remind them that these are people’s lives and there are people who are still suffering because these policies are still in place, so the urgency is real,” she said.
Torres said immigration activists plan to gather at Freedom Plaza in Washington, D.C., on Wednesday at noon to demand an end to family detention, reunification of families separated by deportation and detention policies under the past administration, and to push for an expedited citizenship path for essential workers and their families, and all 11 million undocumented immigrants.
“We can’t stop until we know that these kids are off these planes and back in the arms of their loved ones in safe spaces,” he said.
Maryland Matters reporter Josh Kurtz contributed to this report.