How would President-elect Joe Biden reform US immigration law?

Published: Nov 30, 2020, Updated: Nov 30, 2020 | Tags: USA Immigration, Travel Restrictions

Immigration reform was a central plank of Donald Trump's first presidential campaign, and he made significant changes to US immigration policy from the start of his presidency. From the travel ban on Muslim majority countries to lowering caps on refugee numbers, successive reforms have made entering the United States more difficult or more expensive for many. Will things get easier with a new president?

Biden has pledged to reverse most of Trump's reforms. He has promised to end the ruling preventing foreign nationals from a number of Muslim-majority countries from entering the country and also to reinstate protections from deportation for the Dreamers, the group of 650,000 people who arrived illegally in the United States as children.

But reversing recent immigration law changes could prove tricky. This objective might have to be achieved through presidential proclamations or executive orders to avoid getting mired down in Congress. Immigration lawyers and advocates also point out that the Obama-Biden years saw millions of deported, as well as a rise in the numbers of families being detained. Delivering the promised changes might not be straightforward or easy for the new president.

What is Biden promising?

Here's what we know about Biden's promises for his first 100 days as president:


One of the most significant changes promised by Joe Biden will reinstate DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals), one of President Obama's executive orders. DACA gives protection from deportation to the Dreamers, who arrived in the country illegally as minors.

President Trump rescinded DACA in 2017, and if it is reinstated, around 56,000 people have since become eligible for the protection it offers. Biden has also pledged to make higher education more accessible to Dreamers by ensuring they can apply for federal student financial assistance. But Congress is divided and comprehensive immigration reform, which could potentially develop a route to citizenship for both the Dreamers and the approximately 11 million US immigrants with no documents, is far from guaranteed.

The "Muslim ban"

President-elect Biden also promises to cancel Presidential Proclamation 9645, otherwise known as the "Muslim ban." 

Rescinding this ban on travel from 13 Muslim-majority countries is seen by experts as marking a significant change of direction for US immigration policy. This travel ban which Donald Trump introduced during his first days in office, was widely seen as privileging certain immigrants while it excluded others.

Family reunification

President Trump's Zero Tolerance policy had the consequences of separating many children from their parents. President-elect Biden has pledged to create a task force to find the parents of these minors. This will be a difficult challenge. Because the Trump administration failed to record the contact details of parents who were separated from their children under this policy, the actual numbers may never be known. According to some sources, it is at least 545 and could be as high as 660.

The border wall and "Stay in Mexico"

Joe Biden is planning another reversal immediately after taking office. It relates to Donald Trump's border wall, for which he controversially promised to make Mexico pay. This never happened. Instead, President Trump declared a national emergency in February 2019, which allowed him to divert Department of Defense funding toward constructing the wall. Approximately 400 miles of wall along the border with Mexico was built during his presidency, including repairs to the walls and fences that were already in place.

While campaigning in August this year, Joe Biden stated that not one more foot of wall would be built during his administration. However, the incoming administration is likely to take a cautious approach towards ending Trump's "Remain in Mexico" program. This program forced refugees seeking asylum to wait in Mexico for the courts to hear their cases. The administration fears that suddenly rescinding the program would cause a surge in migrants crossing into the US from Mexico.

The refugee cap

During his campaign, Joe Biden rejected President Trump's "nativist rhetoric "and measures, as he pledged to offer hope and safety to refugees. He promised to increase the cap of refugee numbers to 125,000, a higher cap than was seen during the Obama-Biden years. He suggested that he would try to raise the ceiling in the future. According to figures from the UNHCR, there are currently around 26 million refugees globally.

ICE detention and deportation

During the Obama-Biden administration, there was an unprecedented number of deportations. Cecilia Muñoz headed the White House Domestic Policy Council and oversaw deportations during the two terms. Now immigration lawyers have voiced concern that she has been selected as a part of Biden's transition team. Thus, it is uncertain what changes will come into effect with the new administration.

ESTA Visa Waiver changes

ESTA travel restrictions on citizens of Schengen member countries and the UK due to COVID-19 are likely to remain in place by the time President-elect Joe Biden takes office. Recently it was reported that these restrictions, originally enforced through Proclamation 9993, would be lifted around Thanksgiving. However, President Trump has yet to green light the move. President-elect Joe Biden may take a more cautious approach and decide to wait until Summer 2021 to lift travel restrictions. This would allow countries in the Schengen Area, as well as the United Kingdom to administer a substantial number of vaccine doses to reduce the risks of coronavirus infections brought from outside the United States.

During the Trump Administration, Croatia was to be the 40th member of the Visa Waiver Program (VWP). However, the incoming administration and may decide to delay admitting Croatia to the VWP should there be a potential reconsideration of the move by the incoming leadership at the Department of Homeland Security.


The COVID-19 pandemic and other domestic problems may force the pace of changes in immigration law to decelerate significantly. There are big question marks about how much Biden can change in his first 100 days and what he can accomplish during his years in office.



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