Biden gets Homeland Security chief as he streamlines US immigration

Cuban-born Alejandro Mayorkas, confirmed on a modestly bipartisan vote, becomes the first Latino and the first immigrant to head up DHS.

In this file photo taken on January 19, 2021, Alejandro Mayorkas, nominee to be Secretary of Homeland Security, testifies during a Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs confirmation hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC. Picture: Joshua Roberts/AFP.

WASHINGTON - Joe Biden's immigration reform push received a boost Tuesday when the Senate confirmed his pick to head the Department of Homeland Security, as the US president seeks to roll back Donald Trump's hardline policies.

Cuban-born Alejandro Mayorkas, confirmed on a modestly bipartisan vote, becomes the first Latino and the first immigrant to head up DHS.

His approval gives the expansive agency its first permanent leadership in nearly two years, and came ahead of Biden's signing of three executive orders aimed at streamlining immigration, including an effort to reunite children separated from their parents at the border with Mexico.

They are a follow-up to executive orders that Biden signed on his first day in office as he takes aim at US immigration policy after four years of Trump's "America First" vision.

"I'm not making new law, I'm eliminating bad policy," Biden said as he signed the orders.

The latest measures do not address the status of some 11 million undocumented immigrants living in legal limbo, which hinges on whether Biden can persuade enough congressional Republicans to back a bill offering them a path to citizenship.

The new action by the Democratic president is aimed at streamlining the US immigration process, officials said, with Biden to order a review of all legal obstacles to immigration and integration put in place under Trump.

"The review will likely lead to dramatic changes in policies," according to a senior government official, who said the goal is "to restore faith in our legal immigration system, and promote integration of Americans."

"President Trump was so focused on the (Mexico border) wall that he did nothing to address the root cause of why people are coming to our southern border," the official said.

"It was a limited, wasteful and naive strategy, and it failed."

In line with campaign promises, one of the orders puts in place a working group tasked with reuniting migrant families separated by Trump's "zero tolerance" policy installed in 2018.

That policy allowed officials to prosecute and deport adults who had entered the US illegally. Their children were then placed into federal custody.

Faced with international outcry, and even criticism from within his own party, the Trump administration scaled down the policy. But hundreds of migrant children have still not been returned to their parents.

"We are 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... with no plan, none whatsoever, to reunify the children and their parents," Biden said.

'DANGEROUS TRIP'

The working group will examine ways to reunite the families, officials said, without specifying whether that could allow parents or children who had been deported to return to US soil.

A second executive order echoes a similar policy under the Barack Obama administration, putting in place legal mechanisms for prospective immigrants in their home countries to apply for residency, allowing them to avoid dangerous smuggling routes.

White House spokeswoman Jen Psaki, however, made clear that undocumented immigrants should not rush to US borders.

"It remains a dangerous trip. This is not the time to come to the United States," she said.

"We need the time to put in place an immigration process so people can be treated humanely."

A third decree promotes the integration of some nine million migrants legally settled in the United States and makes naturalization "more accessible" for those eligible to apply for citizenship.

"International cooperation is critical to ensure safe, orderly, and humane migration," new Secretary of State Antony Blinken said in a statement, adding that the US will work with Central American nations to "keep families together."

UNCERTAINTY FOR THE UNDOCUMENTED

There will be a review of the so-called "public charge rule" of 2019 that allowed officials to refuse citizenship or residency applications to migrants receiving social assistance, such as subsidized care or housing allowances.

The public charge rule "basically created or established a wealth test for immigrants," one senior Biden official said.

Most of the reforms will be led by Mayorkas, whose confirmation is historic in that it places an immigrant and son of Cuban refugees in charge of the sprawling agency that oversees immigration issues, border police and emergency responses.

Since coming into office Biden has cancelled two of his predecessor's landmark measures, suspending construction of the wall along the border with Mexico and lifting a ban on US entry for residents of a number of countries with majority Muslim populations.

On his first day in office, Biden sent Congress a bill that could offer a path to citizenship for millions of undocumented immigrants - including so-called Dreamers, who were brought to the US illegally as children.

But Republicans have bristled at Biden's moves, with Senator Lindsey Graham warning they "undercut" bipartisan cooperation.

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