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President Biden’s push to reverse Trump immigration policies is both symbolic and substantive

Six of President Biden's 17 first-day executive orders dealt with immigration, such as halting work on a border wall in Mexico and lifting a travel ban on people from several predominantly Muslim countries.Evan Vucci/Associated Press

WASHINGTON — Alien. Origin: Latin. Definition: a foreigner.

When it first appeared in an English treatise, the term applied to anyone born outside the British Isles, including those in the Colonies that would become the United States. The first uses of the word were technical, but it took on a pejorative meaning in the early 1970s, when Mexican Americans became the racial targets of xenophobic politicians and trade unions, right-wing groups, and federal immigration agencies.

So, it was fitting to some political analysts and immigrant advocates when President Biden signaled on his first day in office that he wanted to slash the word alien from immigration laws and replace it with “noncitizen.” It was one of several sweeping actions to reverse a hardline approach to immigration under a predecessor who paved his way to the White House decrying Mexicans as criminals and rapists.


The executive orders, memorandums, and directives flowing from the Oval Office are expected to continue Tuesday, with the announcement of a task force to reunite migrant families separated by immigration officials under then-President Trump’s “zero tolerance” policy.

The flurry of moves has been a mix of the symbolic and the substantive, and together they represent a stark departure from Trump’s rhetoric and policies, even if the prospects for the boldest action so far — a broad immigration bill — remain very much in doubt because of Republican opposition.

The most optimistic of supporters say Biden’s actions could spur some bipartisan efforts to provide a path to citizenship to many of the roughly 11 million people living in the United States without authorized status, including day-care workers, janitors, and farmworkers doing some of the most essential jobs amid a crippling pandemic. But overhauling the nation’s immigration laws will be hard after decades of political gridlock — and harder still in a narrowly divided Congress with the specter of Trump still looming over the Republican Party.


“We weren’t born yesterday,” said Frank Sharry, founder and executive director of America’s Voice, a pro-immigrant rights group. “But it does provide an opening. I think we are about to begin a new day in how we approach immigration.”

Biden set the tone on immigration on his first day in office when he signed a slew of actions to reverse what he saw as damage done under Trump’s harsh immigration policies.

He overturned a ban on travelers from certain Muslim-majority countries, halted border wall projects along the nation’s southern border, and fully reinstated the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, which temporarily defers the deportation of immigrants brought into the country as children. Biden also revoked Trump administration orders geared to harsher immigration enforcement in the country’s interior and exempting immigrants without citizenship or legal status from being counted in the US Census.

And he sent a broad immigration bill to Congress “to restore humanity and American values” to the immigration system, legislation first described by Vice President Kamala Harris on the Spanish-language network Univision. It would allow nearly 11 million immigrants without legal status to become citizens over eight years, and it would establish shorter pathways to citizenship for agriculture workers and DACA recipients.

The moves fulfill a campaign pledge Biden made to address criticism of his own record after former President Obama delayed tackling the issue and presided over aggressive deportations.


The Biden administration actions have been crafted over the past six months, with input from a unity task force formed by Biden and Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, as well as veterans of prior political battles on the issue, including federal officials and lawmakers. Notably absent from the plan are the funding requests for more troops and militarization along the US-Mexico border that have tended to dominate the discourse over immigration reform since 9/11, though part of Biden’s immigration bill would boost the use of technology for surveillance of the borders.

Even the language has been steeped in symbolism.

For decades now, the harm caused by the word “alien” has been studied and debated, as it has been used by groups on the right and the left to put distance between natives and foreigners. Over time, it has increasingly been paired with the word “illegal.” in the form of a slur. And the term was preferred by Trump and other hardliners, who also understood words carry weight: Under Trump, Citizenship and Immigration Services removed a passage from its mission statement describing the United States as “a nation of immigrants.”

The effort to strip “alien” from immigration laws signals a change in attitude, said Hiroshi Motomura, a professor at the School of Law at the University of California Los Angeles.

“It is a powerful move — not in terms of operational law — but symbolically it is important,” he said. “I use the term noncitizen in everything I write. I think it’s the best neutral term.”


Still, the first full week of Biden’s presidency delivered reminders of the challenges.

A judge in Texas on Tuesday temporarily blocked Biden’s effort to pause deportations for 100 days, siding with Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton. Missouri Senator Josh Hawley, a Republican who has drawn scrutiny for his role in inciting the Jan. 6 insurrection, blocked a quick confirmation vote for the nominee for Homeland Security secretary, Alejandro Mayorkas, questioning his alignment with Biden’s immigration priorities.

The move sparked criticism from former DHS secretaries Janet Napolitano, who served under Obama, and Michael Chertoff, who served under President George W. Bush. “The tradition has been, understandably, that national security positions within the incoming administration are confirmed on the day of inauguration,” Chertoff told reporters.

Biden’s efforts mark perhaps the most sweeping approach to immigration since then-President Ronald Reagan signed legislation in 1986 granting citizenship to roughly 3 million people. Since then, Congress has increasingly merged the nation’s immigration and criminal justice laws, expanding the list of offenses that would trigger deportation, providing incentives to detain immigrants, and boosting coordination between federal law enforcement and immigration forces.

Congressional efforts to re-envision the system in recent decades have failed under Democrats and Republicans.

The irony, historians and Democrats said, is that Trump sought to ramp up a deportation and immigration enforcement machine through divisive and racist rhetoric painting immigrants — here legally and illegally — as potential criminals and terrorists. But the greatest national security threat now is domestic: white supremacists like those who stormed the US Capitol. And immigrants are playing a crucial role as essential frontline workers during the pandemic.


“I find it really poetic that Trump’s first week in office started with the travel ban and his last week in office ended with our nation crippled by a pandemic and a shortage of doctors and nurses,” said Kari E. Hong, an associate professor at Boston College Law School. “That travel ban was billed as keeping out the terrorists, but it kept out the doctors.”

Congressional Democrats said they have been in talks with some moderate Republicans about the best bipartisan approach to push Biden’s proposal forward. White House officials have said they are open to breaking it into pieces, prioritizing protections, for example, for Dreamers and holders of temporary protective status.

Representative Joaquin Castro, a Democrat from Texas who has met with Biden policy advisers, said he remained hopeful that Congress would be able to pass major immigration legislation, as Biden and Democratic leaders in the House and Senate were — finally — ”on the same page.”

Still, progressive House Democrats like Pramila Jayapal of Michigan are planning to hold Biden to his pledge of a broader reimagining of the immigration system after Trump helped push public sentiment to the left on the issue of immigration. “Everyone got to see it in scary high-def color, and that has really led to a change, as to how people see the issue,” she said.

She and Representatives Ayanna Pressley of Boston and Jesus “Chuy” García of Illinois have introduced a roadmap to decriminalize and address systemic racism in the US immigration system.

Other lawmakers have been quick to revive prior proposals: Massachusetts Senator Ed Markey is pushing legislation to lift the cap on the number of refugees admitted and create an office to help “new Americans” find work, learn English, and navigate their new country.

“I am hopeful that we will have a working group of Democrats and Republicans who can come together to shape a new immigration policy for our country,” Markey said. “It happened once before, in 2013, and my hope is it happens again.”

But Senator Marco Rubio, a Florida Republican, said Democrats haven’t reached out to him — and even if they did, the conversation would have to begin with enforcement. “I think it starts with enforcing our laws and going from there,” he said.

Such Republican opposition poses major problems for immigration legislation in a narrowly divided Senate and House.

Lorella Praeli, co-president of Community Change, was among the longtime immigrant rights activists who helped Biden and Harris craft their approach, and she said immigrant rights groups like hers are not seeing the congressional battles ahead as an “all-or-nothing game.”

She was in high school when she found out she was living in the United States without documentation, and in college when she fully understood the word “alien” for what it was: a term that carried shame and stigma and was used to mark someone as “other.”

Years later, she still had not obtained legal status when the Dream Act, which would have provided temporary legal residency to authorized minors, narrowly failed in 2010. She and other young activists had watched the vote from the Senate gallery.

“It was heartbreaking and disappointing, and also it became a galvanizing moment,” she said. “We walked out, and we started chanting that we were going to fight — and we were going to win, and that it was only a matter of time.”