US President Joe Biden has signed three executive orders seeking to reunite migrant families split up by a Trump-era policy and to order a review of his predecessor’s wider immigration agenda.
In an attempt to deter illegal immigration, President Donald Trump’s administration split up undocumented adults from children as they crossed the US-Mexico border.
Biden’s orders will set up a task force to try to reunite the estimated 600-700 children who are still separated from their families.
The Trump administration split up at least 5500 children from adults along the border between 2017-18.
The administration of US President Barack Obama – whom Biden served as vice-president – also separated undocumented children from adults at the border, though they are thought to have happened rarely.
One of Biden’s orders will set up an inter-agency task force – led by the newly confirmed Secretary of Homeland Security Alejandro Mayorkas – to oversee family reunifications.
Biden’s second and third orders signed on Tuesday order a review of Trump’s immigration policies that curtailed asylum, slowed legal immigration into the US, and cancelled funding to foreign countries.
At Tuesday’s White House briefing, press secretary Jen Psaki said the administration was committed to building a “moral” and “humane” immigration system, but until that happened, now was “not the time to come to the United States”.
How did family separations come about?
Under a “zero-tolerance” immigration policy publicly adopted in April 2018, adult undocumented migrants crossing the US-Mexico border were criminally charged and jailed.
These offences had previously been treated as civil violations.
Because the children of prosecuted migrants could not legally be charged with any crime, they were not permitted to be jailed with their parents, which led to the youngsters being placed in shelters or foster care.
Images and videos of children on sleeping mats in crowded detention facilities sparked a nationwide furore, leading Trump to halt the policy that June.
Last week, the Biden justice department formally revoked the dormant policy.
However, the chain-link enclosures where some of the children were detained were built during the Obama presidency. Some 60,000 unaccompanied minors stopped at the southern border were detained in these cells during one summer alone back in 2014.
Obama-era officials have said migrant family separations only happened rarely during his presidency, for example, in cases where there was reason to suspect trafficking, though the exact numbers are unclear.
Obama’s top immigration adviser Cecilia Munoz – who in 2011 defended the migrant family separations as the inevitable result of a “broken system” – served on Biden’s presidential transition team.