Biden's key immigration policies face uphill battle

Three people involved in crafting Biden's immigration platform said that undoing Trump's legacy will be hard-fought and may not happen all at once.
Image: Joe Biden, Kamala Harris
President-elect Joe Biden, joined by Vice President-elect Kamala Harris, speaks at The Queen theater in Wilmington, Del., on Tuesday.Carolyn Kaster / AP

WASHINGTON — The incoming Biden administration has promised to unroll President Donald Trump's legacy on immigration, but it faces an uphill battle to make good on that promise. Three people involved in crafting Biden's immigration platform said that the changes will be hard-fought and that they may not happen all at once.

Reuniting separated migrant families

As NBC News has reported, lawyers tasked with finding migrant parents separated from their children by the Trump administration have yet to find parents for 666 of the children.

The difficulty, according to the lawyers, lies in finding parents who have been deported and for whom the government has not provided phone numbers. And many parents who have been contacted have elected to leave their children in the U.S., deciding that their futures will be better and safer despite the pain of separation, lawyers say. Advocates have called for U.S. officials to bring parents back to the U.S. to reunite with their children and give the parents a chance to claim asylum.

"Parents, the kids were ripped from their arms and separated. And now they cannot find over 500 sets of those parents, and those kids are alone. Nowhere to go. Nowhere to go. It's criminal. It's criminal," Biden said at the Oct. 22 presidential debate.

During the debates and in his platform, Biden made reunification a priority. But he has so far not said publicly whether separated parents will be given the opportunity to come to the U.S. He has committed to forming a task force to reunify children, including by working through Central American countries and getting the word out through public service announcements.

Ending 'Remain in Mexico'

It is estimated that 20,000 migrants are waiting in northern Mexico in cities like Matamoros while seeking asylum in the U.S.

But the exact number is not known for certain, in large part because the Department of Homeland Security has not yet shared such data with the Biden transition team, two Biden sources said

The asylum-seekers have been waiting, in many cases for over a year, under a Trump policy known as "Remain in Mexico," which requires asylum-seekers to wait outside the U.S. until their court dates and then to enter only for the proceedings.

If all are allowed in at once, they could overwhelm immigration detention facilities, creating the need for additional detention centers, likely to be tent cities. So far, the incoming administration has not said whether it will automatically allow all people waiting under "Remain in Mexico" into the U.S. or whether it will try to keep them all in detention while they await decisions in their cases.

A source familiar with the Biden team's deliberations over ending "Remain in Mexico" said that the Biden administration would work to end the policy but that how it will do so has not been finalized. The incoming administration is "very committed to doing something, but the physical way in which it happens is still being determined."

'Dreamers'

The Biden campaign committed not only to reinstate protections for immigrants brought to the country illegally as children, known as "Dreamers," but also to expand protections for their health care and education. A threat to the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, the Obama-era executive order that protects Dreamers, is making its way through the courts, so the Biden camp is under pressure to act quickly to make good on its promise.

Increasing refugees

Biden has committed to increase the number of refugees admitted to the U.S. annually to 125,000, a historic high and a dramatic increase from the historic low of 15,000 set by the Trump administration. But according to those familiar with the planning, it could take months before the U.S. is able to start admitting refugees at that rate, primarily because so few refugees are in the pipeline. Typically, refugees go through a two-year screening and vetting process before they are resettled in the U.S.

"They decimated the infrastructure to such a point that, in order for refugees to be resettled, that infrastructure has to be built up again. That will have an impact on the ability to implement the 125,000-refugee policy and for refugees to start feeling an impact," said Marielena Hincapié, a co-chair of the Biden-Sanders Unity Task Force, which outlined key policy stances shared by Biden and Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., shortly after the Democratic National Convention.

"It could take months," she said.