The United States is a nation of immigrants and refugees, and for centuries has stood as a beacon of freedom and hope. President Ronald Reagan pointed to the extraordinary value of welcoming immigrants: “They brought with them courage, ambition and the values of family, neighborhood, work, peace, and freedom.” Since the establishment of the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program (USRAP) in 1980 and until 2018, the U.S. has consistently resettled the most refugees in the world, thanks to the program’s traditional bipartisan support, in recognition of USRAP’s humanitarian and strategic importance.
“We lead the world because, unique among nations, we draw our people our strength from every country and every corner of the world If we ever closed the door to new Americans, our leadership in the world would soon be lost.”— President Ronald Reagan
This legacy was eroded by the Trump administration, which set record low limits on the annual refugee cap amid unprecedented levels of displacement globally, while effectively gutting the capacity of resettlement agencies in tandem with a strategy of “bureaucratic strangulation.” In 2017, as part of Trump’s nativist and xenophobic agenda, his administration enacted a travel ban – also known as the Muslim Ban – barring travelers, immigrants, and refugees from various African and predominantly Muslim countries.
Throughout his presidency, President Trump also pursued several policies to prevent immigration from Mexico and Central America. In place of smart investments in border technology, he announced a wall, rooted in racist campaign rhetoric. In place of foreign aid to address underlying causes of migration from Central America, Trump implemented inhumane border measures to deter families, including family separation and child imprisonment. In December 2018, the Trump administration announced its “Remain in Mexico” policy, requiring asylum seekers to stay in Mexico, regardless of the migrants’ country of origin, as they awaited their court hearings. For those fleeing violence in Central America, Trump’s policy meant having to wait in overcrowded migrant shelters in Mexican border cities, often without access to immigration lawyers due to the lack of a phone or Internet.
Throughout his presidency, Trump also pursued several policies to deter immigration to the U.S.-Mexico border by not only announcing an ineffectual border wall rooted in racist campaign rhetoric, but also by turning away legal asylum seekers in violation of U.S. and international law. In place of foreign aid to address root causes of migration from Central America, Trump implemented an inhumane “zero tolerance” enforcement policy at the border to deter arrivals through family separation and child imprisonment, and also enacted the “Remain in Mexico” policy in December 2018, requiring asylum seekers to stay in Mexico, regardless of the migrants’ country of origin, as they awaited their court hearings, endangering vulnerable asylum seekers forced to wait in overcrowded migrant shelters in Mexican border cities, often without access to immigration lawyers due to the lack of a phone or Internet.
These egregious violations of U.S. and international refugee law represent only a fraction of the Trump administration’s systematic dismantling of the U.S. immigration system, enacting over 400 executive actions with enduring effects that have created humanitarian disasters at our border and undermined global diplomatic efforts. During his campaign, President Biden pledged to reverse these policies, including by strengthening America’s refugee resettlement program, ensuring the fair treatment and dignity of all migrants, and addressing the root causes of migration from Central America.
of Americans believe that immigration is good for the country, according to a June 2020 Gallup poll.
The Biden-Harris administration’s “Day 1” measures signaled a return to American leadership and the country’s commitment to refugees and immigrants. Within hours of assuming office, President Biden unveiled plans for a new immigration bill, the U.S. Citizenship Act, which outlines an eight-year pathway to legal status and security for the estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants already living in the U.S. Biden also rescinded Trump’s Muslim travel ban, halted construction of the U.S.-Mexico border wall, and issued an executive order directing the Secretary of Homeland Security to preserve and fortify the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), a program established by President Barack Obama in 2012 to protect young immigrants from deportation.
In the first year of Biden’s term, the administration enacted 296 executive actions on immigration, including: reforming draconian interior enforcement measures such as ending workplace raids, removing some barriers to entry and accessing immigration benefits, establishing a strategy to address root causes of Central American migration, and expanding humanitarian protection through Temporary Protected Status (TPS) and committing to raise the refugee resettlement ceiling to 125,000. Crucially, the administration’s interagency task force is continuing to identify and reunite migrant children with their families who were previously separated under the Trump administration’s zero-tolerance policies.
Efforts to reverse other Trump border policies have stalled. The Biden administration was forced to restart the Remain in Mexico policy by a federal judge after the Supreme Court refused to stop the order. However, in June 2022, the Supreme Court ruled that the administration did have the authority to reverse the program, clearing the way for Biden to put an end to this inhumane policy.
In addition to righting the wrongs of the Trump administration, Biden has also faced new emergencies. Following the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan and the Taliban’s return to power in August 2021, the U.S. airlifted some 124,000 people from the country, which led to the resettlement of over 76,000 Afghans who supported the war effort or were at risk of persecution. As part of this resettlement effort, called “Operation Allies Welcome,” the administration launched the “Sponsor Circle Program for Afghans,” a private sponsorship scheme that allowed citizens to expedite the resettlement of Afghans from military bases into U.S. communities by providing initial assistance.
However, the majority of Special Immigrant Visa (SIV) applicants were left behind during the chaotic evacuation, and of the minority of Afghan humanitarian parole applicants that have been processed amid long backlogs, over 90 percent have been denied. For those who did make it to the U.S. as part of Operation Allies Welcome, they remain in legal limbo until Congress provides a pathway for permanent status.
Building on the innovations of the Afghan private sponsorship program, the Biden administration also enacted an innovative new program, “Uniting for Ukraine” to grant up to 100,000 Ukrainians protection under two-year humanitarian parole by allowing any American to privately sponsor Ukrainians seeking refuge.
While the Biden-Harris administration has made hundreds of significant reforms and has cautioned that reversing the extensive damage of Trump’s immigration policies will take time, the administration can’t afford to rest on its laurels and allow itself to be sidelined by congressional dysfunction and legal roadblocks. In an era of unprecedented humanitarian crises and displacement, the administration must continue its efforts to deliver groundbreaking, lasting legislative reform to meet the needs of our multicultural nation and restore America’s legacy of welcome and hope.
Call your Senators and Representatives at (202) 224-3121 and ask them to: