Biden Is Acting to Undo Trump’s Toxic Immigration Legacy. Now Congress Must Act.

Since January 20, President Joe Biden has made it a political priority to rapidly dismantle as many of Trump’s signature anti-immigration policies as possible. He began by rolling back Trump’s Muslim travel ban and defunding further border wall construction. He ordered a 100-day halt to most deportations, while the Department of Homeland Security recalibrated its priorities away from wholesale, indiscriminate roundups of undocumented people. Although a Texas court subsequently issued a temporary injunction against this pause, the change in priorities is clear: Biden’s team wants to return to a less catch-all system of deportations and avoid the moral stigma of family separation that had become a hallmark of the Stephen Miller-designed immigration crackdowns of the past four years.

In keeping with this new tone, Biden also made it clear that he would hit the brakes on Trump-era efforts to dismantle the Temporary Protected Status program that provides some residency rights and work permits to people fleeing violence and natural disasters in a number of countries in Central America, Africa, Asia and the Caribbean. All told, in recent decades these programs have provided a degree of shelter to hundreds of thousands of people, many of whom have created businesses and families here in the U.S., and who, had Trump’s efforts succeeded, stood to see their families separated and their businesses destroyed by his deportation policies.

Biden also pledged, in his early days in office, to introduce sweeping reform legislation that would protect the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program and would make it far easier for DACA recipients, as well as millions of other undocumented residents, to pursue a path to citizenship.

Now, two weeks into the new administration, the 46th U.S. president is starting to tackle the sweeping regulatory changes that Trump and his team used as a way of bypassing Congress to basically rewrite-on-the-sly more than a half-century of immigration policy. On Tuesday, the president plans to sign a series of executive orders designed to unravel some of the most punitive of these regulations and policies.

There will be an action intended to review, and ultimately end, the Public Charge rules that were aimed at making it harder for low-income immigrants in the country to gain permanent residency and citizenship, and put the brakes on low-income, would-be immigrants from outside the country making the journey to the United States in the first place. These rules — which reinterpreted more than a century of regulatory precedent around how to understand what was considered a public charge activity and what wasn’t — were bitterly opposed by immigrant rights advocates.

They were specifically tailored to allow immigration agencies vast leeway to count usage of food stamps, health and housing assistance, and other non-cash emergency aid against immigrants and their families when they applied to change their legal status; and they allowed a de facto wealth test to be imposed on non-citizens seeking residency visas in the U.S. The result was a wave of fear in immigrant communities, and, even amid growing economic and public health emergencies, a disenrollment from assistance programs, even for the U.S. citizen children of immigrants.

At the same time, the administration is, apparently, planning to unveil a plan to significantly increase the number of refugees who will be eligible to resettle in the United States. The cap that President Barack Obama set on refugee admissions for 2017 was 110,000. In each of his years in office, President Donald Trump massively reduced that number. In his final presidential finding on refugee admissions, he capped it at 15,000, by far the lowest number since World War II.

Now, President Biden is ordering federal agencies to spend the next few months devising plans that will allow for a rapid increase in the number of refugees resettled in the U.S., and, presumably, a reinvestment in the resettlement infrastructure that has been deliberately eroded in cities across the country since 2017.

Of course, simply going back to the pre-Trump era won’t eliminate the injustices that too often define the U.S. immigration system. For while President Obama created important programs such as DACA, he also presided over an accelerated usage of deportations. Following a surge in border crossings in 2014, Obama pushed to hold families with young children in immigrant family jails for longer than was permitted under the Flores settlement. While the excesses associated with Immigration and Customs Enforcement raids and U.S. Customs and Border Protection enforcement campaigns accelerated during the Trump years, both agencies have a track record of brutality and of a culture of impunity that long predates the MAGA years.

Moreover, the U.S.’s refugee admissions system, which used to resettle many more refugees, has been under-performing for decades now, and it had become a political football decades before Trump’s nativist tenure: In fact, even under Obama, the country was admitting far fewer refugees than was the case in the decades between the end of World War II and the 1980s.

Biden’s reset on immigration policy is not only welcome; it is vital. But simply erasing Trump’s morally toxic legacy through a series of executive orders and agency reviews will not be enough. After decades of legislative paralysis and increasingly angry divides over immigration priorities, it is past time for Congress to step up to the plate and legislate big-picture immigration reform. It is past time to massively increase foreign aid, and to do so in a way that meaningfully reduces extreme poverty and violence in poorer countries, especially in Latin America, from which so many economic migrants flee due to U.S.-backed neoliberal trade policy. It is past time to start regarding the global climate crisis as an incubator of mass migration and population displacements, and to develop appropriately largescale mitigation responses to tackle this. And it is past time, as well, not only to increase the number of refugees the U.S. admits, but to work to stop the wars — many of them fought with weapons sold to one or more sides in the conflict by U.S. arms manufacturers — that create vast refugee crises in the first place.

There is an opportunity in the post-Trump moment, with Democrats in control of both Houses of Congress and the White House — and with the public open to outside-the-box policy responses to cascading and interlocking crises — to break the decades-long legislative logjam on immigration reform. As the U.S. reimagines itself and recalibrates its relations with its neighbors and its global allies, there is a chance, perhaps fleeting in its duration, to set in place fairer and more humane policies. This is a chance that Biden — if he wants to cement the progressive alliances, built across race, class, ethnic and linguistic lines, that helped him secure electoral victory in November — must now seize.