Updated at 6:18 p.m. ET
President Biden signed three executive orders on Tuesday that he said would lead to a more "fair, orderly, humane" immigration system, including one that would begin the difficult process of reuniting migrant children separated from their parents after crossing the U.S.-Mexico border.
"There's a lot of talk, with good reason, about the number of executive orders that I've signed. I'm not making new law — I'm eliminating bad policy," Biden told reporters in the Oval Office before signing three actions to begin to roll back former President Donald Trump's hard-line immigration measures.
One of the orders creates a task force to find ways to reunite children in the U.S. with their parents, who were deported without them — something Biden said was a "moral and national shame."
The job is made challenging by a lack of records. Details of how children will be reunited are still to be determined. The task force will make recommendations on how to do it, working with representatives of families and other stakeholders. The task force will issue a report on its progress in 120 days and every 60 days thereafter, White House press secretary Jen Psaki told reporters.
But advocates said urgent action is needed. "What we need now is an immediate commitment to specific remedies, including reunification in the U.S., permanent legal status and restitution for all of the 5,500-plus families separated by the Trump administration," said the American Civil Liberties Union's Lee Gelernt, who fought the issue in court.
"Anything short of that will be extremely troubling given that the U.S. government engaged in deliberate child abuse," Gelernt said in a statement.
Officials who previewed the executive actions to reporters said change won't happen overnight. In fact, more actions are almost certain to follow. "It takes time to review everything, so we are starting with these right now, but that doesn't mean it's the end of it," one of the officials said.
A second order looks at how to address the surge of migrants seeking asylum in the U.S. in recent years and will look at how to replace the Migrant Protection Protocols program — what Trump referred to as "Remain in Mexico."
Biden suspended that program on his first day in office. He has vowed to help countries in Central America address the underlying causes of migration. But the administration wants to restore the asylum system, officials said — and do something to help people stuck in camps at the border. The details of how that will happen are not yet clear.
"We want to put in place an immigration process here that is humane, that is moral, that considers applications for refugees, applications for people to come into this country at the border in a way that treats people as human beings. That's going to take some time. It's not going to happen overnight," Psaki told reporters.
The third order requires agencies to do a "top-to-bottom review of recent regulations, policies and guidance that have set up barriers to our legal immigration system." The first one to go: Trump's "public charge" rule, which prevented immigrants from getting permanent resident, or green card, status if they had or were likely to require public benefits such as housing subsidies.
Advocacy groups said ending the public charge rule would help immigrants struggling with health care and food insecurity amid the COVID-19 crisis.
The new administration is under pressure from immigration activists who are worried that reforms will stall as Biden rushes to deal with the response to the health and economic crises caused by the COVID-19 pandemic — as well as climate change and racial equity priorities.
Biden sent a sweeping immigration legislative proposal to Congress the day he was sworn into office, but it's unclear how quickly the plan may be considered.
NOEL KING, HOST:
President Biden will sign a series of executive actions today. They take aim at his predecessor Donald Trump's harshest immigration policies, like the one that separated children from their families at the border. NPR White House correspondent Franco Ordoñez is following this story. Good morning, Franco.
FRANCO ORDOÑEZ, BYLINE: Good morning, Noel.
KING: So as expected, given the outrage that policy caused, one of the actions today will involve child separation. What is it?
ORDOÑEZ: Well, what they're going to do is they're going to create a task force to kind of help find the children that have missing. And this task force will work across agencies and interest groups to help track down the missing parents of, frankly, hundreds of children. The task force will then work on the best way to reunite the kids with their parents.
KING: There has been uncertainty, though, Franco, as I understand it, about parents who were deported without their children. Are they expecting to have problems actually reuniting some of these families?
ORDOÑEZ: You know, it's a challenging job because the records aren't all there. And officials don't even know exactly how many kids there are or who all of their parents are. And there's been a lot of questions about whether the Biden administration will help bring parents back to the United States, which the Trump administration, by the way, would not do. A senior administration official did tell me last night that reuniting in the United States was one of the options, but that that was going to be a decision that the task force would make.
KING: OK. That's interesting. Joe Biden did make a lot of promises on the campaign trail around immigration. What else are you expecting today?
ORDOÑEZ: One thing we're hearing is that Biden will call for a top to bottom review of Trump's changes to legal immigration. That includes a review of Trump's public charge rule, which prevented immigrants from getting permanent residence or green cards if they were likely to require public benefits. He's also expected to take a close look at border policies. That includes ending requirements that migrants seeking asylum in the United States be forced to wait in Mexico or another third country in Central America. That doesn't necessarily mean, though, that those waiting in Mexico now can come back. A senior administration official said they are going to implement a new system to process asylum cases. But that is going to take some time.
KING: Immigration advocates, despite all of this, have said they're not convinced that this is enough of a priority for Biden. What's their complaint?
ORDOÑEZ: Yeah. There is a lot of concerns that the Biden team won't fulfill its promises on this issue. These activists, frankly, want Biden to do much more to counter all the different things that Trump did to make life increasingly more difficult for the 11 million undocumented people living in the country. Now, obviously, there are a lot of pressing issues right now, COVID-19, climate change, racial equity. And the activists have told me and others they want to make sure that immigration is not lost in the shuffle.
KING: Is there something on immigration that Joe Biden would like to get done that he simply cannot do with an executive action?
ORDOÑEZ: Yeah. As we're learning, you know, the one challenge with executive actions is they can be undone by the next administration. To enact lasting change, you know, Biden's pushing for ambitious immigration legislation that Congress would have to pass. And this proposal that he introduced on Day 1 - or, you know, sent to Congress on Day 1 would put millions of undocumented immigrants on a path to citizenship. But a lot of conservatives are already saying no.
KING: OK. NPR's Franco Ordoñez. Thanks, Franco.
ORDOÑEZ: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.