Biden expected to sign executive order to expand US refugee program

U.S. President Joe Biden speaks after signing an executive order related to American manufacturing in the South Court Auditorium of the White House complex on January 25, 2021 in Washington, DC. By Priscilla Alvarez, CNN

(CNN) -- President Joe Biden is expected to sign an executive order that would set up his goal of admitting tens of thousands more refugees to the United States, according to two administration officials.

Under former President Donald Trump, the US refugee admissions program was largely decimated following years of low arrivals, including a cap of 15,000 in fiscal year 2021 - dramatically lower from the country's historically high admissions caps.

RELATED: Biden wasting no time naming officials to reverse Trump's immigration policies

The refugee cap, which dictates how many refugees may be admitted to the US, must be approved by the President. But where the cap was often been viewed as a goal to be reached, the actual number of refugees admitted fell dramatically under the Trump administration.

During the campaign, Biden pledged to increase refugee admissions nearly tenfold, to an annual cap of 125,000. The President is expected to take executive actions on immigration as soon as Friday, according to a draft calendar sent to administration allies.

While it's unclear when Biden intends to reach the levels he committed to, the expected executive order would serve as guiding principles establishing a tone of opening up back up to refugees and setting a list of required reports due back between 30-120 days, according to a Homeland Security official.

White House officials have made clear their intent to bolster the program. Over the weekend, Esther Olavarria, deputy director of the Domestic Policy Council for immigration, said Biden's upcoming executive actions would "restore the refugee admissions program and enables the US to return to its historic role as a leader and protection for refugees."

Friday also marks two years of a Trump-era policy that required non-Mexican migrants seeking asylum to wait in Mexico until their court date in the United States. The orders build upon the actions already taken in Biden's first hours as president and cement the administration's vision for migration and border processing.

The White House declined to comment on Biden's plans.

During the US Conference of Mayors winter meeting on Saturday, Olavarria said one of the upcoming executive orders focuses on the border and the region as a whole by providing funding to address the root causes of migration. Biden will also set up programs to provide protection for individuals closer to home by strengthening asylum systems in neighboring countries, putting in place a US refugee admissions program for migrants in the region, and reviving the Central American minors program that had been ended by Trump and allows certain at-risk youths to live in the US.

And at the US southern border, the administration intends to establish a "fair but efficient asylum program" that includes ending the so-called "remain in Mexico" program, which forces migrants to stay in Mexico as their immigration cases play out in the US, as well as third country agreements with Central American countries that were put in place under the Trump administration.

The Department of Homeland Security ended new enrollments into the "remain in Mexico" program last week, but didn't address what happens to those who have already been subject to the policy.

'Public charge' rule

Olavarria also cited an executive action that would rescind Trump proclamations that largely barred the admission of low-income immigrants, like the public charge rule which makes it more difficult for immigrants to obtain legal status if they use public benefits such as Medicaid, food stamps and housing vouchers.

"These are policies that ignored the decades -- and centuries actually -- of contributions that immigrants have made to our economy, to our society, to our culture. We'd rescind those policies and return to a country that welcomes immigrants and acknowledges their contributions," she said.

The administration's approach to immigration is a stark contrast from the Trump administration which sought to curtail immigration to the United States. In 2019, then-acting US Citizenship and Immigration Services Director Ken Cuccinelli in a new interview revised the iconic poem on the Statue of Liberty's pedestal to suggest that only immigrants who can "stand on their own two feet" are welcome in the United States.

Family separation and 'zero tolerance'

Biden is also expected to sign an executive order establishing a task force that would focus on reunifying families separated at the US-Mexico border under Trump's controversial "zero tolerance" policy that ended in June 2018. On Tuesday, the Justice Department officially rescinded the 2018 memo.

"Consistent with this longstanding principle of making individualized assessments in criminal cases, I am rescinding -- effective immediately -- the policy directive," acting Attorney General Monty Wilkinson said in a memo to federal prosecutors.

Despite the flurry of announcements and actions, White House officials recognize the limitations of executive authority.

"The President does have a lot of authority to fix the immigration system in a number of different ways," Tyler Moran, special assistant to the president for immigration for the Domestic Policy Council, told mayors Saturday. "But what really the President cannot do is provide permanent status to people and we've made so many runs at this but we really have to get it done to make sure that people are on a path to citizenship."

The immigration bill that Biden sent to Congress is a priority, though a White House official conceded " it's not an all or nothing process." The expectation is that leaders from both chambers and both parties will work together on a package, and the final legislation could be different.

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