WASHINGTON - US President Joe Biden signed half a dozen executive orders on Wednesday to reverse several hardline immigration policies put in place by former President Donald Trump, although migration experts warn that it will take months or longer to unravel many of the restrictions imposed in the past four years.
In a sharp departure from his Republican predecessor, Biden, a Democrat, also sent an immigration bill to lawmakers that proposes opening a path to citizenship for millions of immigrants living in the United States unlawfully.
The executive actions signed at a ceremony at the White House included immediately lifting a travel ban on 13 mostly Muslim-majority and African countries, halting construction of the US-Mexico border wall and reversing a Trump order preventing migrants who are in the United States illegally from being counted for congressional districts.
Biden also signed a memorandum directing the Department of Homeland Security and the US attorney general to preserve the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, which protects migrants who came to the country as children from deportation, and reversed Trump's executive order calling for stricter interior immigration enforcement.
Taken together, the actions show Biden is beginning his presidency with a sharp focus on immigration, just as Trump kept the issue at the center of his policy agenda until the last days of his administration. In one of his rare post-election public appearances, Trump visited a section of the US-Mexico border wall earlier this month.
Biden's decision to immediately roll back Trump's travel ban won praise from business groups and migrant advocates. Myron Brilliant, an executive at the US Chamber of Commerce, said the ban was "was not aligned with American values" and its reversal would help "restore our credibility on the global stage."
Since December 2017, after a revised version of the ban was upheld by the US Supreme Court, some 40,000 people have been barred from entering the United States under the ban, according to State Department data.
MORE ACTIONS COMING
Biden plans additional executive actions on Jan. 29 to restore US asylum protections, strengthen refugee processing and set up a task force to reunify families still separated by Trump's border policies, according to a memo shared with lawmakers and obtained by Reuters.
At the same time, the Biden administration will also review barriers to legal immigration put in place by Trump over the past four years, including a regulation that made it harder for poorer immigrants to get permanent residency, the memo said.
The new president is also expected on Jan. 29 to end a Trump program called the Migrant Protection Protocols, according to a person familiar with the plan. The program has left tens of thousands of asylum seekers waiting in Mexico for US court hearings, with many stuck for months in squalid tent camps near the southwest border.
BILL NO SLAM DUNK
Lifting the travel and implementing executive orders may be an easier task than getting Congress to pass Biden's ambitious immigration bill. It lays out an eight-year road map to citizenship for many of the estimated 11 million immigrants living in the country unlawfully, according to a fact sheet distributed to reporters by incoming White House officials on Tuesday.
Eligible immigrants who were in the country as of Jan. 1 and meet certain requirements would be given a temporary status for five years before being granted green cards. They could then apply for citizenship after three more years, officials said.
The wait time for legalization would be shorter for DACA recipients and immigrants living in the United States with Temporary Protected Status (TPS), both programs Trump tried to end. It would also be expedited for some farmworkers.
While Democrats effectively hold a majority in the US House of Representatives, the Senate will be divided 50-50 with Vice President Kamala Harris as the tie-breaking vote. A lack of bipartisan support has torpedoed past efforts to overhaul the immigration system.
On Tuesday, Republican Senator Marco Rubio of Florida called the bill a "non-starter" that included "a blanket amnesty for people who are here unlawfully." Advocates acknowledge privately that the ambitious bill would probably serve more as a statement of goals to set the stage for a series of smaller, single issue bills that might attract more bipartisan support.
In the meantime, Biden faces a more immediate issue. Migrant caravans have been on the move in Central America, with some aiming to arrive at the southwest border after Biden's inauguration. On Monday, baton-wielding Guatemalan soldiers clashed with migrants, removing a large part of a caravan that included women and children.
Biden's actions on his first day in office do not include repealing a coronavirus pandemic-era order issued by the US Centers for Disease Control that allows border officials to expel almost all border crossers, according to fact sheets released by his team.
More than 380,000 people have been quickly sent to their home countries or pushed back to Mexico under the order, known as "Title 42" for the statute it falls under, since March 2020, according to US Customs and Border Protection data.
Incoming national security adviser Jake Sullivan said on a call with reporters on Tuesday that it would be "unwise" for migrants to come to the border now because of limited capacity to process asylum claims.
"The situation at the border is one we intend to change, but it is going to take considerable time," he said.