President Joe Biden signed several executive orders Tuesday related to the immigration system, including one that would create a task force to reunite the remaining families who were separated at the border under the previous administration. Immigration advocates say they know that Biden faces a “logistical nightmare” but that they are cautiously optimistic that his actions will end former president Donald Trump’s “cruel and harmful” immigration policies. 

“We’re going to work to undue the moral and national shame of the previous administration that literally — not figuratively — ripped children from the arms of their families, their mothers and fathers, at the border and with no plan to reunify the children who are still in custody and their parents,” Biden said Tuesday, just before signing the orders.

At a news conference earlier in the day, White House press secretary Jen Psaki told reporters that the process is “going to take some time” and won’t happen overnight.

“I don’t think any parent can look at what’s happened to those kids over the last couple of years and not feel we should do everything in our power to get those kids back with their parents,” Psaki said.

Biden’s other orders will develop a strategy to address the underlying causes of migration across the southern border and attempt to “restore faith” in the legal immigration system. The Biden administration plans to collaborate with other countries and international organizations to provide protection for asylum seekers and ensure that Central American refugees have access to legal avenues into the United States. 

Biden’s order on families puts in place a task force that aims to reunite the hundreds of families who remain apart under Trump’s “zero tolerance” policy that separated thousands of immigrant children from their parents. The American Civil Liberties Union, which sued the government over the policy, estimates the administration separated at least 5,500 children from their parents from July 2017 to June 2018 and that hundreds remain separated.

The Physicians for Human Rights published a report last year based on psychological evaluations of migrant parents and children who were separated in 2018. When many of the parents arrived at the U.S. border — fleeing violence in their home countries and fearing for their children’s lives — immigration authorities forcibly removed children from their arms, removed parents while the children slept or took the children while parents were in courtrooms, according to the report.

The task force will be led by the secretary of homeland security and will include the secretary of state, the secretary of health and human services, and other officials from various government agencies, according to senior administration officials. Its rollout was originally set for last Friday but was delayed after Senate Republicans objected to the confirmation of Alejandro Mayorkas — who served as the deputy secretary of the Department of Homeland Security during the Obama administration — to lead the Department of Homeland Security. Mayorkas was confirmed Tuesday in a 56-43 vote and is the first Latino and immigrant to helm the department.

One of the biggest challenges that the task force faces is locating children when little information was documented by the Trump administration about their whereabouts. 

Since he took office on January 20, Biden has signed more than 40 executive orders related to health care, the environment, racial equity, the economy, COVID-19 and immigration. On immigration, he has already taken steps to preserve Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), which halts deportation for some undocumented immigrants brought to the country as children; end the ban that prevented certain individuals from primarily Muslim and African countries from entering the United States; halt border wall construction; and protect Liberian nationals living in the United States from deportation. 

The president has signed more executive orders in his first weeks in office than former presidents Trump and Barack Obama combined. On the day of his inauguration, the White House issued a statement that said the “historic number of actions” would deliver immediate relief to Americans facing converging crises: a pandemic, economic insecurity, climate change and racial inequality. 

“I want to make it clear, there’s a lot of talk, with good reason, about the number of executive orders that I have signed,” Biden said Tuesday. “I’m not making new law. I’m eliminating bad policy.”

Immigration experts and advocates were hopeful that Biden would implement practical and humane policies but urged swift action.

Dr. Michele Heisler, the medical director at Physicians for Human Rights and professor of internal medicine and public health at the University of Michigan, said the way the United States has treated asylum-seekers is “nothing short of a human rights and health crisis.”

After evaluating 17 adults and nine children who were separated, the human rights organization found pervasive symptoms of trauma, post-traumatic stress disorder, major depressive disorder and generalized anxiety disorder likely linked to the family separation.

“While [the task force] will no doubt face numerous logistical challenges, we urge it to act quickly to reunite families in the United States and to provide reparations, mental health support and pathways to citizenship to the children and parents who endured the family separation policy,” Heisler said in a statement to The 19th.

Marielena Hincapié, the executive director of the National Immigration Law Center, applauded Biden’s move to create a more “immigrant-inclusive vision” for the country and also urged Congress to create a pathway to citizenship for 11 million undocumented immigrants, including essential workers.

“The pandemic has underscored how interdependent we all are, and immigrants have been at the forefront of the pandemic response, caring for the sick, harvesting our nation’s food and keeping businesses running,” Hincapié said in a statement.

Undoing Trump’s “harmful” immigration policies is the first step in redefining the promise of the United States as a “beacon of hope” and is key to recovering from COVID-19, Hincapié said.

Jennifer Nagda, the policy director for the Young Center for Immigrant Children’s Rights, said that the orders are a step in the right direction but that the individuals responsible for the Trump-era policies should be held accountable.

“Family separation continued long after the public demanded an end to the Trump policy that took thousands of children from their parents,” Nagda said in a statement to The 19th. “And it continues today through the Remain in Mexico policy and the closure of the border to asylum-seekers, forcing families to send their children to the border alone to protect them from harm.”

Kelli Garcia, the federal policy counsel of the Southern Poverty Law Center Action Fund, said she is encouraged by Tuesday’s executive orders but acknowledged that they will not immediately help the 20,000 migrants who are “languishing in dangerous conditions just south of the border” due to the Migrant Protection Protocols program put in place by the Trump administration.

“While the long-term vision offered in these orders is admirable, the administration must recognize that its predecessors, in an effort to deter migration, embraced callous policies … not in spite of the known harm it would cause, but because of it,” Garcia said in a statement. “And those policies have inflicted enormous pain on countless men, women and children who need immediate relief and the opportunity to heal.”