By ANEETA MATHUR-ASHTON Capital News Service Washington Bureau
Using executive orders and new legislative proposals, the Biden administration is attempting a sweeping overhaul of the nation’s immigration system – changes that are aimed at reversing the policies of the Donald Trump years.
“We are dedicated to achieving and, quite frankly, are working around the clock to replace the cruelty of the past administration with an orderly, humane, and safe immigration process,” Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas told reporters at a White House press conference Monday. “It is hard, and it will take time.”
President Joe Biden issued a series of executive orders early last month that required a review of Trump’s actions that created barriers to legal immigration and hindered asylum-seekers, and he set up a task force to reunite families separated at the United States-Mexico border.
On Jan. 20, his first day in office, Biden also sent Congress a legislative package, called the U.S. Citizenship Act of 2021, which would create an eight-year path to citizenship instead of the original 13 for those living in the United States illegally.
The proposed legislation includes an exemption for undocumented immigrants who came to the country as children who fall under Temporary Protected Status, so-called “dreamers.” Individuals who came to the United States before Jan. 1 would qualify for green cards, thus granting them legal status.
The measure also would seek to clear EB-5 visa backlogs, remove the word “alien” and replace it with “noncitizen” in immigration laws, and invest $4 billion over four years in the U.S.-Mexico border area and the Central American nations of El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras.
Democratic congressional leaders have embraced the Biden plan, but differences in their own party may delay action for some weeks, according to a report by Politico on Thursday.
In addition, Biden’s immigration package faces widespread opposition among Republicans. Numerous bipartisan negotiations among lawmakers over recent years to find an immigration compromise have collapsed.
Mayorkas said that the Trump administration had “gutted” the U.S. immigration system.
He also noted that the Biden administration did not “have the facilities available or equipped to administer the humanitarian laws that our Congress passed years ago.”
“It takes time to rebuild an entire system and to process individuals at the border in a safe and just way,” he said.
Although U.S. Customs and Border Protection has reported between 3,000 and 4,000 daily illegal crossings at the southern border, Mayorkas declined to call it a crisis.
“This is a challenge that the border communities, the non-governmental organizations, the people who care for individuals seeking humanitarian relief all understand it is an imperative,” the secretary said. ”Everyone understands what occurred before us, what we need to do now. And we are getting it done.”
For many in the Hispanic community, Biden’s recent actions are a welcome first step following the harsh immigration rules put in place by Trump under a “zero tolerance” policy.
One of the most visible and disturbing results of that earlier policy was an estimated 5,500 children separated from their parents at the border. Hundreds remain separated.
Domingo Garcia, the national president of the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC), believes that the Biden plan is important to open up legal immigration and citizenship to the estimated 11 million immigrants in the country who have not been able to use legal channels.
“We need to get it done in this year, 2021,” Garcia told Capital News Service. “Time is of the essence with the elections two years away, when immigration can be turned into another political pinata and immigrants are used as a source to divide Americans. It’s important that we get this off the table and move on to recovering from COVID and the economic questions we’ve had.”
The task force aimed at reunifying families at the border is led by Mayorkas and will receive input from first lady Dr. Jill Biden.
More than 600 children have been separated at the border from their parents for more than two years.
Garcia believes the first step in making sure the reunification efforts work is making it clear that parents will not be arrested when picking up their children and that they will not be subject to deportation, which was happening under the Trump administration.
“If those safeguards are in place, then actually all of those children can be reunited in 90 to 120 days,” he said. “Unfortunately, some of those parents have been deported back to their countries of origin, and that will be difficult, or complex, for unification.”
When it comes to reassuring the Latino and Hispanic community that harmful orders against those wanting to emigrate here won’t be repeated, Garcia said, the Biden administration still must deal with “thousands of refugees in squalor in refugee camps under the ‘Stay in Mexico’ order.”
“The Trump administration committed horrific human rights abuses by separating families at the border,” Rep. Joaquin Castro, D-Texas, said in a statement. He is also head of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus.
“I commend President Biden for immediately working to reunite these families and ensure these atrocities never happen again,” he said.
Castro and Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Connecticut, are the authors of legislation that would grant lawful permanent resident status to eligible people who were separated by the Department of Homeland Security during the Trump years.
Prospects for comprehensive immigration changes remain poor. The partisan divide in Congress on the issue has not narrowed. Most GOP lawmakers have viewed Democratic efforts to reform immigration as too lenient and not focused enough on border security.
“Biden wasted no time pulling out his pen and unraveling policies critical to our national security, border security, and immigration enforcement,” Rep. John Katko, R-New York, wrote last month on FoxNews.com.
The ranking Republican on the House Homeland Security Committee, Katko wrote: “From pausing deportations to halting border wall construction and ending the ‘Remain in Mexico’ policy, the president slapped an ‘open’ sign on our border – during a global pandemic.”
Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Arkansas, tweeted that the Biden plan amounted to “total amnesty, no regard for the health or security of Americans, and zero enforcement.”