On February 18, 2021, the Biden Administration introduced its new immigration bill, The US Citizenship Act 2021. If passed, this bill would represent sweeping changes to the immigration system, including:

  • Creation of an eight-year path to citizenship for immigrants already in the country, thus speeding up the process by five years;
  • Changing the dehumanizing word “alien” to the more neutral term “noncitizen” in immigration laws;
  • Funding for more immigration judges and lawyers, with an emphasis on access to counsel for children and vulnerable individuals;
  • Exemptions for certain groups, such as partners and children of lawful permanent residents, from counting toward annual caps;
  • Repeal of bars to reentering the United States if a noncitizen previously entered illegally;
  • New investments in the US-Mexico border and Central America region.

In the leadup to President Biden’s inauguration, experts speculated on the policy changes the new administration would enact — and how quickly. On February 2, less than two weeks after taking office, President Biden signed three executive orders impacting immigration policy. The executive orders mandated the following:

  1. Creation of a task force for reunifying families. This task force will locate parents or guardians of the thousands of children who were separated from their families under the Trump administration. It will also regularly report on its progress beginning 120 days after the signing of this executive order.
  2. Restoration of the asylum system. Under the Trump administration, the process for seeking and gaining asylum became so arduous that many refugees were forced to wait in Mexico while they sought asylum. This resulted in what many have called a humanitarian crisis at the U.S.-Mexico border. Biden’s order seeks to restore a more humane asylum process.
  3. Review of the public charge rule. Immigration agencies have been instructed to look at this rule from the perspective of the new administration, which seeks to create a more inclusive system. On March 9, 2021, the public charge rule was struck down when the Department of Justice decided to stop defending the rule, the U.S. Supreme Court dismissed all pending appeals related to the rule, and the 7th Circuit dismissed the government’s appeal. This is huge win for immigrants and advocates, and it is now safe for immigrants to receive public benefits without fear of a public charge test.

These executive orders follow those signed on President Biden’s first day in office, when he reversed many of former President Trump’s policies, including:

  • Revoking travel restrictions from majority Muslim countries and other nations  by the Trump administration. However, the security screening procedures for such travelers remain in place for the moment.
  • Pausing deportations for 100 days for most immigrants (starting on January 22), except for those that engage in terrorism, commit crimes, pose a threat to national security, or arrived in the U.S. after November 1, 2020. In the midst of a pandemic, this moratorium on deportations will prevent unnecessary movement and allow immigration agencies to focus resources on reuniting families and fighting COVID-19 in detention centers.
  • Stopping border wall construction and rescinding $10 billion in funding that the previous president diverted for wall construction. Biden is expected to abandon the border wall in order to focus border security efforts and funding elsewhere, such as on funding health and safety initiatives within immigration agencies.
  • Fortifying the Deferred Actions for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) Program, which currently protects about 650,000 “Dreamers,” as members of the program are known. Additional support for or expansion of the program may be included in Biden’s proposed reform bill.
  • Ending the “Remain in Mexico” border program that required immigrants seeking asylum in the U.S. to reside in Mexico while waiting for hearings and decisions. Moving forward, no new asylum seekers will be placed in the program. However, those currently placed in the program will not be moved out of it.
  • Halting use of the term dehumanizing and pejorative term “illegal alien” and replacing it with “noncitizen,” a move perceived by many as an attempt to inject dignity and decency into immigration policy.

Taken together, these actions represent a marked shift in the approach to immigration policy, as well as to the health and safety of migrants. This shift may significantly reduce stress and fear of deportation in immigrant communities (a social determinant of health that has consistently been shown to negatively impact health and contribute to ongoing health problems).

Reviewed on 3/15/2021