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The Lowdown

How to Decode Biden’s Immigration Blitz

Ambitious promises run up against political and practical obstacles.

President Joe Biden signs an executive order at the White House in Washington, on Jan. 21.
President Joe Biden signs an executive order at the White House in Washington, on Jan. 21.

President Joe Biden launched the first day of his administration with a barrage of immigration initiatives intended to deliver a blunt repudiation of the policies of President Trump and amplify his new message of welcoming immigrants.

Biden signed six executive actions, announced two substantial policy changes—including a 100-day pause on many deportations from the interior of the country—and unveiled the outlines of an ambitious bill he will send to Congress to open a roadway to citizenship for the more than 10 million undocumented immigrants in the country.

With his first-day rush, Biden began to undo some of Trump’s draconian measures to slash immigration and unleash enforcement. But a close look at Biden’s actions shows that they are only a start towards undoing the bureaucratic stranglehold on the immigration system that Trump left behind. Biden signaled his intention to live up to campaign promises on immigration. That marks a break with his years as second-in-command to President Obama, who also promised sweeping reform in his first year and never came through, earning Democrats --and Biden himself -- enduring skepticism from some Latino and immigrant voters.

Biden faces limits on the reach and impact of unilateral executive actions, and a daunting fight in Congress to pass his comprehensive bill, complicated by impeachment and his more urgent priority to pass COVID-19 relief legislation to repair the economy and help bring the coronavirus under control.

Here’s a look at some of Biden’s actions:

Cancel travel bans

Biden revoked travel restrictions on about a dozen countries, mostly Muslim-majority and African nations, which he called a Muslim ban. In a strong signal to a watching world, Biden called the bans “a stain on our national conscience.”

Over time Trump had revised a succession of bans to include some non-Muslim countries and remove the most explicit Islamophobic framing, and the restrictions finally passed muster at the Supreme Court in 2018. Trump established standards for national security vetting of travelers, and he determined that the banned countries were not meeting them.

As a result, revoking the bans created potential security gaps that officials of the new administration will have to scramble to address. Bans were lifted on adversaries Iran and North Korea, and also on some officials of the regime of Venezuela’s leftist president, Nicolás Maduro, who the United States does not recognize as a head of state. Just one day before leaving office, Trump gave protection from deportation for 18 months to some 200,000 Venezuelan exiles, most of whom live in Florida, the former president’s new home and perhaps future political base. For the moment, at least, Biden’s action had the effect of lifting some sanctions on an autocrat those voters -- and the Biden administration -- staunchly oppose.

For now, extensive procedures for screening individuals from those countries remain in effect, which officials say will prevent security lapses while they work to update policies.

“The ban felt inherently xenophobic and racist and it had a grave impact on our relations worldwide and on communities at home,” said Elizabeth Neumann, who served as assistant secretary of Homeland Security for counterterrorism under the Trump administration. “The only way to deal with it was just to remove it completely.”

Preserve DACA

Biden issued a call to shore up the program, called Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, which gives temporary protection from deportation to undocumented immigrants who came to the United States as children. While sending a strong political signal of Biden’s support, its practical impact remains unclear. About 650,000 people are currently protected.

Trump tried relentlessly to end DACA, but he was thwarted by the courts. Biden instructed the Secretary of Homeland Security in a memo to “take all actions he deems appropriate, consistent with applicable law, to preserve and fortify DACA.” But the new administration’s options to expand DACA, which was created by nothing more than a policy memo in 2012, or to reset its legal foundations, appear limited. They may be further narrowed by a ruling from a federal judge in a challenge to the program awaiting a decision in a federal court in Texas.

Leaders of the Dreamers, as DACA holders are known, have been tenacious, effective advocates for many years, and Biden knows they expect him finally to secure their place in this country. The solution they want to see is passage of Biden’s reform bill, which would give DACA holders an immediate chance to apply for green cards, with an expedited three-year path to citizenship.

Stop wall construction

With a stroke of his pen, Biden ordered a halt to work on Trump’s signature project and also to some of its funding, by rescinding an emergency declaration that allowed Trump to divert about $10 billion in Pentagon funds to wall contracts.

A number of Republicans in Congress share Biden’s view that the wall was a wasteful vanity exercise that did little to enhance border security. But in a hearing on Tuesday, several Trump supporters, including Senator Josh Hawley of Missouri, grilled Biden’s nominee for Homeland Security secretary, Alejandro Mayorkas, about his intentions for spending $140 billion Congress recently appropriated for border enforcement. Citing his concerns, Hawley blocked Mayorkas from expedited consideration for approval.

With the tense divides in Washington, moving the funds to pay for surveillance technology and infrastructure improvements at busy border ports of entry stations may be more laborious than Biden hoped.

Restore flexibility to enforcement

Over the long run, the most widespread impact of Biden’s day one measures will likely be due to an executive order terminating Trump’s policies that made any undocumented immigrant a target for deportation. The order lays the groundwork to restore discretion for enforcement agents and prosecutors to allow immigrants to avoid removal and remain lawfully in the country.

End the “Remain in Mexico” border program

A policy directive from the Department of Homeland Security stopped any new migrants from being placed in a program misleadingly labeled as the Migrant Protection Protocols, which required migrants seeking asylum at the border to wait in Mexico while their claims were heard in United States immigration courts. The program created an ongoing humanitarian disaster, according to human rights monitors, stranding about 65,000 people without shelter or support in Mexican cities rife with kidnapping and drug violence.

Lawyers and advocates who have struggled to represent the migrants in court were greatly relieved. But restrictions on non-essential travel, put in place in March under a public health mandate by an order from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, remain in place. Migrants currently in the program will have to wait longer to find out how and when they will be admitted across the border to fight for their asylum claims.

The backdrop to Biden’s executive actions is a sweeping immigration reform bill he promised to introduce in Congress in the coming days. It would provide an eight-year path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants, add hundreds of thousands of legal green card visas to the system, reduce visa backlogs for families and workers, eliminate barriers to entry that left deportees permanently separated from their American families, and much more.

The bill has the support of a coalition of Latino, Asian, Black and other immigrant organizations, which have grown exponentially since immigration reform failed in Congress in 2014, and have high expectations after playing a part in Biden’s victory, especially in Arizona, and in the two races in Georgia that flipped Senate control to Democrats.

But with Trump’s impeachment trial looming, and Biden turning his focus to passing a mammoth $1.9 billion COVID-19 relief package, Republicans have already started to oppose the immigration bill, including Senator Marco Rubio of Florida, who was an author of a comprehensive bill that passed the Senate in 2013. Biden’s core plan for restoring a welcoming immigration system will be by far the most difficult to achieve.

Julia Preston Twitter Email covered immigration for The New York Times for 10 years, until 2016. She was a member of The Times staff that won the 1998 Pulitzer Prize for reporting on international affairs, for its series that profiled the corrosive effects of drug corruption in Mexico. She is a 1997 recipient of the Maria Moors Cabot Prize for distinguished coverage of Latin America and a 1994 winner of the Robert F. Kennedy Award for Humanitarian Journalism.