The Biden administration starts to unwind Trump’s border legacy

The Biden administration starts to unwind Trump’s border legacy

President Biden began fulfilling a campaign promise Tuesday as U.S. authorities began to help to reunite a number of migrant families forcibly separated by the previous administration.

President Donald Trump imposed a “zero tolerance” policy on those crossing the U.S. border illegally that led to myriad unauthorized migrants being rushed through criminal proceedings and deported while their children who had accompanied them remained in the United States.

In the eyes of critics, the trauma of these separations defined Trump’s cruel and crude approach to immigration, which seemed anchored more in a desire to assuage the passions of a nativist base than in an effort to reckon with the factors driving thousands of asylum-seeking migrants to the border. A judge in June 2018 ordered the Trump administration to reunite the separated families. Hundreds were, but hundreds of parents had already been deported to their home countries. The Trump administration, rights groups allege, kept insufficient information about these deportees, complicating the Biden administration’s ability to right a perceived wrong.

“We’re trying like hell to figure out what happened,” Biden said last week in an interview with NBC’s “Today” show. “What happened to that child when he got separated? Where’d they go? Where are they?”

As my colleague Kevin Sieff reported this week, in reality, it was easier to track the children than their parents. In some instances, advocates had to post radio advertisements in Mexico and Central America. The reunions Tuesday would mark, Sieff wrote, “the start of a massive relocation of parents deported by one U.S. president and returned by another. In total, more than 1,000 families are expected to be reunited.”

For the Biden administration, the symbolism of the moment is part of a larger unwinding of Trump’s legacy on immigration. Earlier this week, Biden lifted the cap on refugee admissions — set to a record low by Trump — to 62,500 people through September, with a goal of 125,000 in the fiscal year starting in October. The Biden administration will likely struggle to fill those quotas and made the announcement after pressure from activists and some Democratic lawmakers who were irked that Biden was on course to resettle the fewest refugees in this fiscal year since 1980.

“It is important to take this action today to remove any lingering doubt in the minds of refugees around the world who have suffered so much, and who are anxiously waiting for their new lives to begin,” Biden said Monday. “The United States Refugee Admissions Program embodies America’s commitment to protect the most vulnerable, and to stand as a beacon of liberty and refuge to the world.”

Biden has halted construction of Trump’s controversial and expensive border wall, abandoned Trump’s “public charge” rule that would penalize immigrants who had received government benefits, and allowed a Trump-era ban on certain foreign workers’ visas to expire. The White House also put forward an immigration overhaul bill that would place millions of undocumented people on the pathway to citizenship, as well as boost funding for border security, but it remains snared in Congress.

Republicans are adamant that the administration prioritize the current influx along the United States’ southern border, which polls suggest may be Biden’s main political weakness. “Since President Biden took office, the number of migrants taken into U.S. custody along the border has soared to the highest levels in nearly 20 years, surpassing 172,000 in March,” my colleagues reported. “His administration has opened more than a dozen emergency shelters to care for record numbers of teenagers and children arriving without parents.”

“Before we can do anything meaningful on immigration, we’re going to have to deal with the current crisis at the border,” Sen. John Cornyn (R-Tex.) told the New York Times.

Biden has tasked Vice President Harris with leading the administration’s efforts to reckon with migration from Central America. At a virtual conference hosted by the Council of the Americas on Tuesday, Harris spoke of citizens of the “Northern Triangle” countries — El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras — “leaving their homes at alarming rates” because of surging crime, natural disasters and failing governance.

“We want to help people find hope at home, and so we are focused on addressing the acute factors and the root causes of migration,” Harris said, touting an additional $310 million in aid to the region that the administration announced last week. She also called out the legislature of El Salvador, now dominated by the party of populist President Nayib Bukele, for its recent perceived power grab in removing the judges of the country’s Supreme Court and its attorney general.

A slate of other senior Biden administration officials also participated in the event, including Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas, who emphasized that his country’s “security and economic success are inextricably linked” to the well-being of the broader region and said that “today’s family reunifications are just the beginning” of the administration’s efforts to retool immigration policy and “rebuild systems that were dismantled by the prior administration.”

While speaking of U.S. plans to further modernize border security, he also rejected Trump’s angry nationalism. “Rather than viewing borders solely as the lines that mark national borders and divide us … we should see them as a point of connection,” he said.

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