What to Expect From Biden’s Immigration Policies

Latin America expert Shannon O’Neil discusses Biden’s plans to reverse family separation, rebuild the asylum and refugee system, and give hope to “Dreamers” and their families.

Hundreds of people gather for a "Lights for Liberty" protest against migrant detention camps and impending raids by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) in New York City, on July 12, 2019.
Hundreds of people gather for a "Lights for Liberty" protest against migrant detention camps and impending raids by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) in New York City, on July 12, 2019. Spencer Platt/Getty Images

Since taking office, U.S. President Joe Biden has unrolled a slew of sweeping executive orders and proposals that overhaul his predecessor’s controversial immigration legacy in Latin America. 

In just his first day as president, Biden unveiled plans to provide 11 million undocumented immigrants with a path to citizenship, suspend the construction of the border wall, and preserve Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals—a program that former President Donald Trump tried to abolish. The next day, Biden went even further, announcing that he would suspend deportations for 100 days and pause Trump’s Remain in Mexico program, which forced asylum-seekers to stay in Mexico for court hearings. He also rescinded Trump’s family separation policy on Jan. 26. 

“President Biden has been very clear about restoring compassion and order to our immigration system and correcting the divisive, inhumane and immoral policies of the last four years,” a senior administration official told reporters, while noting that these plans were “just the beginning.”

To understand what’s still to come—and how Biden’s moves will impact immigration and U.S.-Latin America relations—Foreign Policy spoke with Shannon O’Neil, the Nelson and David Rockefeller senior fellow for Latin America studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, before Biden signed three executive orders to modernize the U.S. immigration system. Since the interview, Biden has also proposed to raise the refugee cap to 125,000—a cap that Trump slashed to just 15,000 during his presidency. 

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity. 

Foreign Policy: Biden has already issued a raft of orders that will overturn Trump-era immigration policies. What are his next moves? 

Shannon O’Neil: We’ve seen in the short term, a lot of the immigration moves have been to undo the policies of the past. That’s both dealing with over 500 children who have been separated from their families; another is opening back up to asylum cases, which effectively had been closed down. So we’re now rebuilding a system that would allow the processing of asylum cases and restarting a border process that would allow the systematic judging of cases at the border. A lot of that had been eroded—if not broken—under the Trump administration. So some of that is making the process of applying for asylum or entry into the United States a more efficient, and also humane, process. 

FP: How will Biden address the root causes of migration? 

SO: What you have seen the Biden administration talk a lot about is working with Latin American countries to change things on the ground so that fewer people make the decision to migrate. I do think you will see, in the coming weeks and months, how do you improve life for someone who lives in Guatemala or Honduras or El Salvador or elsewhere so that they really can make a decision to stay, that there’s something there to stay for? People want to stay in their homeland—most people don’t want to leave and go to a country where they may not speak the language, where they don’t have a whole network of family and friends and the like. A big focus that we’ll see in terms of U.S.-Latin America policy under the Biden administration is trying to address the root causes of migration, be it economic opportunity, consolidating or deepening the rule of law, be it creating more open, transparent, inclusive societies.

FP: Biden issued a moratorium to suspend deportations for 100 days, which was temporarily blocked by a Texas judge. What other obstacles will he face in executing his plans—and how difficult will it be to reverse Trump-era immigration policies? 

SO: There’s a number of obstacles, and some will be those legal routes. There’s people like Texas prosecutors or an attorney general and others who will try to stop some of these moves. 

A second is the actual infrastructure and capacity of the bureaucracy. We have seen over the last four years an erosion of the breadth and depth of immigration courts and the number of judges that are there. So this plan to put into place an efficient and humane migration-processing system will take some time because you have to rebuild what has been eroded, or broken, in some cases.

And then the third challenge will be Biden not only wants to stop deportations and deal with some of the current challenges of migrants that are waiting in Mexico—for instance, to have their asylum cases heard—but he has proposed a much bigger comprehensive reform of the U.S. migration system in general. And that obviously has to go through the legislative process. So that is another challenge—finding a compromise, including hopefully both Republicans and Democrats, to find a way to revamp the U.S. immigration system for the 21st century.

FP: One of Biden’s executive orders rescinded Trump’s family separation policy. In practice, how will he reunite those separated families? 

SO: My understanding is there’s over 500 children who the U.S. government has lost track of their parents or their families. And so [reuniting them] will take some significant efforts, in the U.S. government, NGOs, and others. I’m hopeful that, yes, with a lot of effort, that it can be done, but it’s sad that it needs to be done and that, at the very least, records weren’t kept and contacts weren’t kept for these, you know, over 500 children.

FP: What domestic impact will Biden’s proposals have?

SO: One proposal he has is comprehensive immigration reform. If that was successful, you would likely see a path to citizenship for many of the undocumented immigrants who are here today in the United States, the “Dreamers,” as well as others. So that would change the status of those individuals but also their families. And so it would bring those American citizens a lot more stability and peace of mind to know that one of their parents might not be deported. 

There are also, you know, within the proposal ideas to allow more high-skilled workers, as well as family reunification issues, so this is making the U.S. a little easier to migrate to. [Increased migration] has effects on the labor market. It likely has effects on innovation and job creation. There’s lots of studies out there that show that migrants and the children of migrants are much more likely to start a business, are much more likely to be entrepreneurs, are much more likely to hold a patent. So in terms of creating jobs, as you come out of COVID-19, having a robust set of migrants participating in U.S. society is a good path to job creation. 

It also has longer-term effects for U.S. demographics. If you look around the world, lots of countries are aging. The U.S. for many years has been buffered somewhat from the aging process that’s going on in Europe or the changes that are happening in China—which are really difficult to deal with in terms of the economy—precisely because of migration. And last year, we saw one of the lowest birth rates in many years, in part because of a slowdown in migrants. So as we think about the robustness of our society and our economy, comprehensive immigration reform could also help as we think about the long-term demographic trends. 

FP: What has the response been so far in Latin America?

SO: So I think there’s different responses, and some of it is a cautious wait and see what happens. A lot of these things take time and would take political consensus, and Latin Americans watch U.S. politics too, and they understand the difficulties there.

But there is also hope. There’s hope for those that have family members that are here who are undocumented that they will be able to stay. There’s hope for those who want to migrate to the United States, who, either for economic opportunities, to reunite with families, or because of the threats they face at home. I think there’s hope that perhaps they could change their situation and protect themselves and or their families. 

Christina Lu is an intern at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @christinafei

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