Biden presidency begins as Trump’s ended – with focus on immigration

Joe Biden and his wife Jill Biden attend a coronavirus disease (COVID-19) memorial event at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, U.S. January 19, 2021. REUTERS/Tom Brenner

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Within hours of being sworn in as president on Wednesday, Joe Biden sent an immigration bill to lawmakers that would open a path to citizenship for millions of immigrants living in the United States unlawfully, a sharp contrast to the policies of former President Donald Trump.

Biden also will sign 15 executive actions on Wednesday, at least six of those dealing with immigration, making the issue a major focus of the Democratic president’s first day in office.

The actions included immediately lifting a travel ban on more than a dozen mostly Muslim-majority and African countries, halting construction of the U.S.-Mexico border wall and reversing a Trump order preventing migrants who are in the United States illegally from being counted when U.S. congressional voting districts are next redrawn.

Biden will also sign a memorandum directing the Department of Homeland Security and the U.S. 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 reverse Trump’s executive order calling for stricter interior immigration enforcement.

Biden plans additional executive actions on Jan. 29, including restoring U.S. asylum protections, strengthening refugee processing and setting 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. Biden will also lift barriers to legal immigration put in place by his Republican predecessor over the past four years, the memo said.

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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 U.S. court hearings, with many stuck for months in squalid tent camps near the U.S. border.

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 few post-election public appearances, Trump visited a section of the U.S.-Mexico border wall earlier this month.

Biden‘s decision to immediately roll back Trump’s travel ban, which sparked widespread protests when it was signed and was panned as discriminatory, won praise from business groups and advocates. Myron Brilliant, an executive at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, said the reversal would help “restore our credibility on the global stage.”

BILL NO SLAM DUNK

Lifting the ban may be an easier task, however, than getting Congress to pass Biden‘s ambitious bill. It will lay 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 will be given a temporary status for five years, before being granted green cards for permanent residency, which is subject to certain requirements, such as background checks. They could then apply for citizenship after three more years, officials said.

The wait time for legalization would be shorter – three years – for some of the approximately 645,000 current beneficiaries of the DACA program and more than 400,000 immigrants living in the United States with Temporary Protected Status (TPS). It would also be expedited for some farmworkers.

Many DACA, TPS holders, and farmworkers who are not currently eligible for permanent residency would be immediately eligible to apply for green cards, officials said.

Trump tried to end DACA and phase out TPS for some countries but was stymied in federal court. One case challenging DACA, which was put in place in 2012 when Biden was vice president under former President Barack Obama, is still pending in Texas.

If passed, it would be the largest legislative overhaul of the U.S. immigration system since the administration of Republican President Ronald Reagan in the 1980s.

While Democrats effectively hold a majority in the U.S. 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 could push for the passage of smaller bills seeking incremental changes if the larger effort fails.

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 U.S. 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 U.S. 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.

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