While running for office, Joseph Biden set out an ambitious platform of reforms he intended to make on immigration and refugee policy. Judging by the first six weeks of his Presidency, he is keeping his word. Much more needs to be done to fix what had already been a broken system when Donald G. Trump too office but the steps President Biden has taken are welcome.
Biden’s first executive action ended Trump’s Muslim ban. No longer will people from Muslim-majority countries be excluded from the United States solely based on their country of origin. Rather, they will be subject to all of the security checks done on everyone else seeking entry. Erasing this last vestige of national origins restrictions first enacted with the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 puts the country back on a pathway towards greater equity in the implementation of immigration policies. Notably, the Biden administration has also reversed the Migrant Protection Protocols, better known as the Remain in Mexico policy; established an inter-agency taskforce to hasten the reunification of separated children with their parents; reinstated the Deferred Action on Childhood Arrivals program; increased the ceiling on refugees to be resettled in the U.S.; established an interagency working group to promote naturalization; and revoked the Trump effort to exclude undocumented migrants from use in apportioning seats in the House of Representatives, among other actions.
President Biden also set-in motion a process for long overdue reform of the legal immigration system as well as enforcement against unauthorized migration. Bills in the Senate and House of Representatives were subsequently introduced to transform his proposal into legislative action. The legislation would, for example, provide pathways to legal permanent residence and, eventually, citizenship for many undocumented migrants in the United States; mechanisms for clearing the very lengthy backlogs in family reunification and employment-based visas; protection of migrants from workplace abuses; authorization of funds to address root causes of irregular migration from parts of Central America; and reforms in the immigration courts to increase due process and reduce backlogs.
Never before in the 40 years I have studied US immigration from inside and out of government have I seen a president tackle so many issues in such a constructive manner. Some of these actions were taken early in the administration because lives were at stake, as is the case with the reversal of the remain in Mexico and separated children policies. The Biden administration has gone beyond merely reversing Trump, though, in setting up deliberative bodies to ‘build back better’. The challenge is for the administration, in partnership with Congress, to make sustainable changes in immigration and refugee policy that will protect the rights and dignity of migrants while serving the national interest in having a secure and efficient system for managing admissions into the country. It will be difficult but not impossible. The last comprehensive reform of legal immigration was adopted 30 years ago by a vote of 83-17 in the Senate and without objection in the House. It is time for that bipartisan spirit to be resuscitated.