As he entered office last year, President Biden signaled that reforming U.S. immigration policy would be a top priority for his administration. While our nation’s immigration system has long faced challenges, the previous administration implemented an array of drastic changes rooted in xenophobia, including the notorious Family Separation policy, the Muslim Ban, the attempted dismantling of the refugee resettlement program, and the decimation of asylum protections.
This article examines where progress has been made in the Biden administration’s first year on immigration, and where promises remain unfulfilled to rebuild and reimagine a system that is fair and humane.
Please note this analysis is limited to actions most notable to LIRS and our network of partners, and is not inclusive of all executive actions on immigration.
President Biden’s First Year on Immigration
In February 2021, President Biden announced a highly anticipated task force to reunite migrant families separated at the border during the Trump administration as a result of its “Zero Tolerance” policy – during which more than 5,500 families were forcibly separated.
Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service played a pivotal role at the height of the crisis, and ultimately reunited 1,112 families thanks to its decades of expertise serving migrant families and children.
Despite this progress, much work remains – there are approximately 1,000 families who are still separated. Additionally, many questions remain as to whether families can access lasting legal status in the U.S., and whether they might be compensated for the traumatic ordeal they suffered at the hands of the federal government.
As a result of hard-fought advocacy, President Biden raised the Fiscal Year 2021 refugee admissions ceiling to 62,500 from the historic low of 15,000 set by President Trump – and raised it once again for Fiscal Year 2022 to 125,000.
Despite these actions, actual admissions of refugees have remained troublingly low – the U.S. welcomed just 11,411 refugees in Fiscal Year 2021: a worryingly similar amount as the 11,814 refugees admitted during former President Trump’s final fiscal year in office. These figures do not account for the nearly 75,000 Afghans evacuated to the U.S. following military withdrawal from Afghanistan.
To learn more about the historic Afghan resettlement effort and get involved with the work of welcome, visit our online hub for ways to help.
Private Immigration Detention
In January 2021, President Biden signed an executive order to phase out Justice Department contracts with private prisons – a critical first step to redress the harm inflicted by rampant profiteering off of mass incarceration.
Notably excluded from the application of this order, however, was the Department of Homeland Security, where private prison companies operate an alarming 79% of facilities used by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) for detention.
Meanwhile, the number of coronavirus infections among immigrants detained at U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) detention centers has surged by 520% since the start of 2022
LIRS continues to urge the Biden administration to recognize the moral and fiscal imperative to end profiteering off of human suffering and invest in humane, community-based alternatives to detention.
Unaccompanied Migrant Children
President Biden’s first year on immigration saw the Department of Health and Human Services’ shelter system receive a record-breaking 122,000 unaccompanied migrant children in fiscal year 2021, as violence, persecution, political instability, and natural disaster continue to widespread displacement – particularly in Central America.
The landmark number of children seeking protection in the U.S., which reached a new all-time high in July, posed major logistical and humanitarian challenges for the Biden administration.
In response, the Biden administration converted more than a dozen convention centers, military installations, work camps and other facilities into “emergency intake sites” to quickly process and house the record number of children. The Government Accountability Project released alarming disclosures of abuses occurring at one such facility at Fort Bliss, including “undue reliance on [an] unskilled private contractor,” overcrowded conditions, insufficient and negligent oversight, and case management failures.
These facilities highlight the risks of placing vulnerable children in makeshift housing facilities lacking the standards of care enforced at traditional shelters – often operated by private contractors with little to no child welfare experience.
LIRS urges the Biden administration to scale up community-based models of care, such as Transitional Foster Care, to deliver safe, licensed, family-like settings as children are reunited with their U.S.-based family. LIRS also supports efforts to build a safer process for vulnerable children fleeing violence to reunify with family in the U.S., and commends the Biden administration for its re-implementation of the Central American Minors (CAM) program.
Title 42 Border Expulsions
At the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Trump administration invoked Title 42: an obscure public health rule that allows authorities to expel asylum seekers encountered at the border without an interview or court hearing.
While it has made exceptions for unaccompanied migrant children and certain family units, the Biden administration has largely left the policy in place and defended its continued use throughout its first year in office. As a result, more than 1,000,000 expulsions without due process were carried out by border authorities in Fiscal Year 2021, disproportionately impacting Black migrants – including the shameful expulsion of several thousand Haitian asylum seekers that sparked widespread public backlash in September 2021.
LIRS continues to urge the administration to heed the call of both Congressional leaders and immigration advocates to rescind Title 42, welcoming migrant children, individuals, and families with dignity – in accordance with our legal obligations under U.S. and international law.
The “Remain in Mexico” Program
In June, the Biden administration formally ended its predecessor’s controversial “Remain in Mexico” policy, which requires asylum-seekers trying to enter the U.S. from the southern border to wait in dangerous conditions in Mexico for American court hearings.
However, a U.S. district court judge blocked the program’s termination, claiming the administration did not follow the proper regulatory procedures. The federal government’s appeal of that ruling is pending, but for the time being, Department of Homeland Security officials have stated they will abide by the court’s order to reinstate the program, promising to incorporate more humane practices.
It is important to note that the Biden administration’s re-implementation expands the policy’s mandate to all Western hemisphere nationals, including Haitians who were previously exempt under the Trump administration, which was not required by the court order.
LIRS continues to urge the Biden administration to abide by its promise to forge a humane, fair, and just immigration system for those desperately seeking protection.
In February 2021, President Biden directed his administration to study and outline options for protection for those displaced by climate change, including the release of a report that, among other things, recommends “a new legal pathway for individualized humanitarian protection in the United States for individuals facing serious threats to their life because of climate change.”
While a major milestone in the Biden administration’s first year on immigration, the report itself is only a building block towards a framework for recognizing and protecting the climate-displaced. LIRS has published its own recommendations urging the Biden administration to move swiftly and boldly towards concrete, actionable, and time-bound solutions.
The Muslim and African Bans
In keeping with his campaign promise, President Biden repealed the Muslim and African Ban on his first day in office through an Executive Order. The Order also required the Department of State to ensure that all those whose visa applications were denied on the basis of the bans may have their applications reconsidered without prejudice.
Repealing the ban paved the way for refugees to access safety, for international students to pursue their education, for professionals to access employment, and for families to reunite in the U.S. after years of separation.
ICE Enforcement and Deportation
Upon taking office, the Biden administration attempted to place a pause on deportations for 100 days as it reviewed the Trump administration’s aggressive immigration enforcement against all undocumented individuals encountered – even those without any criminal history.
Though a court ultimately ruled that deportations should continue, President Biden issued an Executive Order that followed by a Department of Homeland Security memorandum on enforcement priorities, that have successfully focused deportations on those who have been convicted of serious crimes.
Other notable actions
In its first year, the Biden administration granted or extended Temporary Protected Status (TPS) for nationals of Somalia, Yemen, Haiti, Venezuela, and Myanmar – shielding them from deportations and allowing them to work legally.
LIRS encourages the administration to consider similar action to protect vulnerable nationals of Afghanistan, Cameroon, Ethiopia, and Central American nations, among others.
President Biden also rescinded the Public Charge rule, a Trump-era policy that sought to deny legal immigration status to immigrants who have used, or who have been deemed likely to use public benefits. This is particularly beneficial during the pandemic, as people should not be in fear of seeking nutritional and medical support.
Naturalization rates rebounded in Fiscal Year 2021 – approximately 808,000 people became U.S. citizens, compared with 625,400 people in Fiscal Year 2020. This is a trend we hope continues as we advocate for improvements in access to naturalization through fee and other waivers, and through backlog reduction.
LIRS must also note the dangerous “don’t come” rhetoric that President Biden, Vice President Harris, DHS Secretary Mayorkas, and other members of the administration have espoused. This stands in stark contrast to our organizational and national ideals, and runs contrary to the legal right to seek protection. We urge the administration to align both its policy decisions and its messaging with the values of a welcoming nation of immigrants.