Within hours of his inauguration on Jan. 20, President Joe Biden signed executive orders seeking to bolster the country’s COVID-19 response and issued a memo to top federal officials to “preserve and fortify” a key immigration policy for certain undocumented immigrants.
The actions were among more than a dozen executive moves in Biden’s first few days in office.
Executive Order 13987 created a national COVID-19 response coordinator, while subsequent pandemic-related orders included mask wearing on federal property and created a coronavirus testing board.
Meanwhile on Jan. 20, Biden signed a memo to the Attorney General and Secretary of Homeland Security to preserve the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, a 2012 policy under the Obama administration that deferred the removal of undocumented immigrants who were brought to the U.S. as children and stayed in school or enlisted in the military.
Both policy initiatives signaled a new tone from the Biden administration on day one and have gained support from some groups in the West Michigan business community.
“It’s been good to see President Biden’s call for 100 days of mask wearing and a whole slew of executive orders around tackling the pandemic,” said Andy Johnston, vice president of government and corporate affairs with the Grand Rapids Area Chamber of Commerce.
“It was positive from our standpoint when it comes to the (DACA) order and was something we were hoping to see,” he added. “Talent attraction and recruitment is still a major issue for us, and it was encouraging to see them prioritizing immigration reform.”
The Biden administration’s early focus on a COVID-19 response has been welcomed particularly by business groups and economists who have long argued that a full economic recovery won’t start until the pandemic is under control.
“We are in a recession that was caused by the pandemic — period, end of story,” said Michigan State University Economist Charles Ballard. “Absent the pandemic, the U.S. economy wouldn’t have done all of these gyrations we’ve gone through. Thus, the economy’s not going to really get back to normal until we get the pandemic under control.”
Within the first three days of taking office, Biden signed more than a dozen executive orders specific to addressing the pandemic. Days later, the administration announced it would buy 200 million doses of COVID-19 vaccines.
“I’m also encouraged that it’s beginning to look like the vaccine rollout might finally gain some strength,” Ballard added. “On balance, certainly I’d say that it looks like there’s a plan with the Biden administration. With the Trump administration, it just seemed rudderless.”
Guillermo Cisneros, executive director of the West Michigan Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, agrees that it’s “imperative,” particularly within the Latinx community, to get the vaccine.
“Unfortunately, we’ve seen in the Latinx community hesitation of a lot of people that don’t trust the government, who fear any consequences after getting vaccinated,” he said. “The issue is across the board.”
In late January, Cisneros was among more than 50 people appointed by Gov. Gretchen Whitmer to the Protect Michigan Commission, which aims to raise public awareness about the safety and effectiveness of COVID-19 vaccines.
“I’m excited about the opportunity,” Cisneros said. “It says it’s the only way we’ll be able to move forward and help the economy grow.”
Ballard agreed: “We can’t pretend the pandemic’s over here and the economy’s over there. They’re intimately intertwined.”
A naturalized U.S. citizen from Mexico, Cisneros said more broadly the swearing in of Biden was “absolutely” a sigh of relief.
Biden also signed an executive order incorporating undocumented immigrants into the decennial Census count and terminating construction of the southern U.S. border wall.
“What we are sensing and feeling is more openness from this new government to search for problems and struggles that the U.S. has, particularly for the people who are disadvantaged,” Cisneros said.
Like Johnston, Cisneros says the DACA program hits on crucial workforce issues across a variety of trades in Michigan and elsewhere.
“The workforce we have doesn’t have the proper documentation to fulfill these jobs and get certified” in trades, he said. “DACA is a good beginning of moving toward more comprehensive immigration reform. It will provide opportunities for all of these students or individuals who came to this country when they were kids. At the same time, it will benefit incredibly these business owners looking for talent.”
Johnston said the DACA memo in particular represented a “good tone being set. We do need to make changes to our immigration system. Not only will it help businesses meet critical workforce needs, but it’s also good to do from an individual standpoint. We want the most talented, industrious people as possible to drive growth and, in turn, create more jobs.”
Despite support for immigration and public health efforts, Michigan business groups are skeptical of other early actions from Biden. That includes the cancelation of a presidential permit for the Keystone XL pipeline, which was among several executive actions the administration has already taken to address climate change that have garnered support from clean energy groups.
Despite Keystone XL’s planned path from Alberta Province in Canada to the Gulf of Mexico via Great Plains states, business groups have raised concerns about the potential effect on energy prices and the cost to produce goods. Also last week, the Biden administration announced a pause on oil leasing on U.S. federal land.
Small Business Association of Michigan President Brian Calley says the rulemaking process that goes along with executive orders will ultimately determine their policy weight, including a Biden order directing the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration to develop new COVID-19 workplace safety guidelines.
Calley called the Keystone XL order “concerning and problematic in terms of the cost of energy and the cost of anything that uses petroleum as an input. Taking chances with energy costs is an unnecessary risk given the challenges we face.”
Johnston also cited the Keystone XL permit revocation as a specific sticking point: “We want to make sure energy independence remains a priority.”
So far, these issues have been among a slew of policy discussions being raised after Democrats took back a majority in the U.S. Senate, along with the presidency, and retained control of the U.S. House.
Johnston hopes debates around raising the federal minimum wage to $15 an hour and tax policy changes — while still worthy of discussion, he says — remain separated from the pandemic response.
“It’s a bit of a mixed bag,” Johnston said of the Biden administration. “On the whole, it’s been positive to see.”