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Will Biden's Immigration Executive Actions Satisfy Advocates?

NOEL KING, HOST:

President Biden signed three executive orders on immigration last night. One of them creates a task force to try and reunify migrant children and their parents who were separated by the Trump administration's zero-tolerance policy.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: We're going to work to undo the moral and national shame of the previous administration that literally, not figuratively, ripped children from the arms of their families, the mothers and fathers at the border, and with no plan, none whatsoever, to reunify the children who are still in custody and their parents.

KING: But Biden's orders will not undo all of Trump's immigration policies. For example, he has ordered a review of the Remain in Mexico program that forces migrants to wait in Mexico while their asylum cases are decided in court. So does this go far enough? Linda Rivas is executive director of the Las Americas Immigrant Advocacy Center in El Paso. And Michelle Brane is senior director of the Women's Refugee Commission in Washington, D.C. Good morning to you both.

LINDA RIVAS: Good morning.

MICHELLE BRANE: Good morning.

KING: Michelle, I know that you saw the trauma experienced by families who'd been separated by officials at the border. What do you think about the prospects of this task force?

BRANE: Well, you know, first of all, I think it's a huge sea change that we now have a president that recognizes this trauma and recognizes our responsibility as a nation in inflicting that trauma. And that is a really critical first step. And not only that, he's gone further to say that, you know, he's going to actually do something about it. So we really look forward to the task force getting started and starting a process - and, hopefully, completing it - of not only finding all of these families and all of these parents, but actually reunifying them and providing them with help in healing, and in doing so, you know, hopefully, getting to a point where not only are the families all reunified and in a better place - we'll never be able to completely address the harm that we've caused them - but also help us all heal as a nation and overcome some of the, you know, horrors that we were part of as a country. I think that that - taking responsibility is a really critical, critical step towards healing and change.

KING: Linda, when he signed these orders last night, Biden said something very direct. He said, I'm not making new law. I'm eliminating bad policy. He seems to be telegraphing that in order for him to do the law part, he is going to need Congress. And that has been the holdup for decades.

RIVAS: Yes. Absolutely. And there's very promising language in these executive orders that will, hopefully, get us to the next step. And we're happy to see these really cruel policies, you know, begin to be reversed. We're very anxious for what comes next. We're very anxious for that next action.

KING: What's the source of the anxiety? What are you concerned about?

RIVAS: Definitely. So what we have, you know, we're representing people who are right now living on the Mexican side of the border. Some have been waiting for almost two years for a resolution to their case. And while they wait, they are suffering. You know, we represent, unfortunately, victims of rape, assault, kidnapping, some with sick children who have no access to medical care. And so while we really appreciate this language and this push towards transforming a system to be more humane, you know, the reality on the ground is there is a lot of desperation. And people do not - you know, they don't know how much longer they can be patient, which is the message that we have to give them.

KING: Let's talk about some of that desperation. Michelle, some years back, when Joe Biden was vice president, he traveled to Central America. He said he wanted to look at the root cause of migration. He now says he wants to address the root causes. How should his administration do that, in your view?

BRANE: Well, we were pleased to see that in the executive orders, he addresses directly the issue of corruption and accountability. You know, one of the really important things to remember, as we look at addressing root causes and looking at the source of what people are fleeing, is to focus on improving their lives and eliminating those dangers, the violence that they're fleeing, the dangers that they're fleeing, and not just telling Central American countries not to let people move, right? We don't want borders closed. What we want is to keep borders open and freedom of movement to exist, but for people to not have to flee. That's going to take a very, very long time.

So first of all, we hope that there's a recognition of that, that there's going to be an investment that is needed to address those root causes. But that, in the meantime, we absolutely cannot shut off access to protection for people who are desperately in need of safety and looking for a better life like any of us would. So I think what's really important is a balance, to include civil society and the public in strengthening the democracies in those countries, but also keeping avenues open for people to seek safety, you know, and to comply with our obligations under the law.

I think one of the things, you know, that Linda was getting at is that we need to see at the border people actually get that relief. And now that Secretary Mayorkas has been confirmed, we really hope that that can start happening. There are hundreds of organizations and people like Linda and Las Americas across the southern border that are already stepping up to do that. And they're ready to work with the administration to build a better system.

KING: These orders give the Department of Homeland Security, the Department of Justice and the State Department time to figure out how to undo some of the previous policies that were so unpopular in certain quarters. Do you have faith that these agencies will get it right? Michelle, let me start with you.

BRANE: You know, it's going to take time. We need culture change in all of these agencies. We've had four years of an administration implementing policies that are focused on cruelty, on cutting people out, on closing borders, on creating obstacles for people trying to find a way to live their lives safely. So it will take time. But again, there are so many people out there ready to help. And what I hope is that the administration relies on the expertise of all of these people who are, you know, ready to be part, roll up our sleeves.

KING: Linda, what do you think?

RIVAS: You know, we are hopeful. And we continue to be hopeful. For some of us, sometimes hope is all we have. We live in these beautiful, vibrant border communities that have been over-militarized for years. We continue to look at immigration and people on the move as national security risks. And that is something that we're ready and hopeful that we let go of and we start to look at this through a humane lens.

KING: Linda Rivas and Michelle Barne. Thank you so much for joining us.

BRANE: Thank you.

RIVAS: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF WHALE FALL'S "DECADES") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.