WASHINGTON — On his first day in office, President Joe Biden unveiled immigration legislation that includes an eight-year pathway to citizenship for nearly 11 million immigrants living in the United States without legal status.
The legislation, first reported by the Washington Post, will also include expanding refugee admissions and an enforcement plan that includes deploying technology to patrol the border.
Biden’s plan comes after four years of hardline immigration approaches from President Donald Trump, which led to several controversial policies, including his effort to end the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program. The Supreme Court upheld that program in a ruling last year.
Biden’s immigration bill, titled the U.S. Citizenship Act of 2021, will address three areas: a pathway to citizenship for many immigrants that do not have legal status, border security technology, and the root cause of migration.
Democrats hailed Biden's proposal Tuesday. Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer wrote on Twitter that he looks forward to getting comprehensive immigration reform signed into law.
“Comprehensive immigration reform with a path to citizenship is one of the most important things a Democratic Congress can do,” Schumer wrote in the Tweet.
Rep. Linda Sánchez, D-Calif., will lead the immigration legislation in the House. Sen. Bob Menendez, D-N.J., will lead the legislative effort for Biden's immigration proposal in the U.S. Senate.
"As the son of Cuban immigrants and someone who has spent my adult life fighting for immigration reform, I am filled with hope to have President Biden and Vice President Harris as strong partners to advance a bold vision for immigration reform,” Menendez said in a statement.
Some immigration activists also were cautiously optimistic about the proposal.
"While the bill is welcome, it's really just the beginning," said Maria Praeli, government relations manager at FWD.us, an immigration advocacy group. "What Joe Biden now has to lead on is getting legalization through the finish line. He has to use his leadership, his bully pulpit, to do more than introduce an immigration reform that like captures the vision. So a good first step, not the end of the game."
Republicans were less eager to embrace the incoming president's plan. Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., wrote in a tweet that Biden was “wasting no time trying to enact his radical immigration agenda,” specifically decrying the pathway to citizenship.
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Democrats control Congress, but the margins are slim
Despite the slim Democratic majorities in both the House and Senate, the legislation could be difficult to pass. Democrats in the Senate would need all 50 members to support the bill in order to force a tie with Republicans. Kamala Harris could then break that tie as vice president.
In the House, Democrats hold a 222-to-211 majority, so they can afford few defections.
Under Biden's proposal, immigrants without legal status living in the U.S. as of Jan. 1, 2021, would be put in a temporary legal status for five years. They would be issued green cards if they meet requirements like passing a background check and paying taxes. After they receive their green cards, they could begin a three-year process of applying for citizenship.
Some undocumented immigrants will see a quicker process in the pathway to citizenship. Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) recipients, also known as “Dreamers,” and agricultural workers and those in the temporary protected status program could qualify for green cards immediately.
"It will be about creating a pathway for people to earn citizenship. We're going to reduce the time from what is now has been currently 13 years to eight years. We are going to expand protections for Dreamers and DACA recipients,” Harris said during an interview with Univision last week. "These are some of the things that we're going to do on our immigration bill, and we believe it is a smarter and a more humane way of approaching immigration."
Biden’s bill is also expected to incorporate major provisions of the Reuniting Families Act, which Rep. Judy Chu, a California Democrat, introduced in Congress in 2019, according to advocates familiar with the bill.
Chu’s legislation was intended to address backlogs in the family immigration system and speed up the process for people to bring family members to the U.S. It can currently take 20 years or more to reunite people from some countries, including China, Mexico and India, according to John C. Yang, executive director of Asian Americans Advancing Justice — AAJC, which advocates for the civil and human rights of Asian Americans.
“Traditionally, family immigration is one of the areas that is always attacked and where people, conservatives in particular, seek to whittle away at the ability of family here already in the United States to bring other relatives over to the United States,” Yang said. “The fact that this is being affirmed as a positive value for the American immigration system in itself is significant.”
The bill will also eliminate “3- and 10-year bars,” which refers to the amount of time individuals who were unlawfully in the United States are barred from being readmitted into the U.S. Those who are in the country illegally for 180 days or less are barred for for three years; those who are unlawfully in the U.S. for more than one year are barred for 10 years.
In addition, the bill will allow individuals with an approved family-sponsorship petition to join family in the United States on a temporary basis while they wait for green cards to become available.
Other parts of the bill will include:
The NO BAN Act, which imposes limitations on a President's authority to suspend or restrict immigrants from entering the U.S.
An increase of Diversity Visas from 55,000 to 80,000
Requiring the Department of Homeland Security and the Department of Labor to establish a commission involving labor, employer, and civil rights organizations to make recommendations for improving the employment verification process
The bill will call for additional funding to deploy technology to enhance the ability to identify narcotics at every level, including land, air and sea port entry. It will include scanning technologies to ensure that all commercial and passenger vehicles and freight rail traffic entering the U.S. at land ports and rail-border crossings along the border undergo pre-primary scanning.
Biden also wants to provide funding for training and education to promote agent and officers safety and professionalism.
Also laid out in Biden’s immigration bill: allocating funds to address increased migration. The bill will fund a $4 billion four-year inter-agency plan to address the underlying causes of migration from mostly Central America, and includes increasing assistance to El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras.
The bill will also:
Establish Designated Processing Centers throughout Central America to register and process displaced persons for refugee resettlement
Re-institute the Central American Minors program to reunite children with U.S. relatives and create a Central American Family Reunification Parole Program
Eliminate the one-year deadline for filing asylum claims and provide funding to reduce asylum application backlogs
In a memo released Saturday, Biden’s incoming chief of staff Ron Klain also noted that the Biden Administration will begin reuniting families separated at the border, where 628 parents who were separated from their children at the border are still missing as of December.
Also separate from introducing the immigration bill, Biden will end construction of Trump's signature wall on the U.S.-Mexico border, according to the president-elect's transition team, by proclaiming the "immediate termination" of the national emergency declaration Trump used to fund it.
Path to passing legislation is not easy
For generations, comprehensive immigration reform has been at once the legislation with the most consensus and trickiest to pass. Ronald Reagan signed the bipartisan 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act, which granted amnesty to some 3 million undocumented immigrants living in the U.S.
But throughout the 1990s and into the early 2000s, commitments to more strictly secure the border were woven into any bill offering status relief for undocumented immigrants, said Doris Meissner, head of the U.S. Immigration Policy Program at the Migration Policy Institute. This led to deeper divides over legislation, as political parties grew further apart.
“Immigration legislation doesn’t pass without it being bipartisan,” Meissner said. “Since the (political) center has cratered, immigration reform has been one of the victims.”
The last attempt at meaningful immigration legislation came in 2013 with the Border Security, Economic Opportunity, and Immigration Modernization Act, authored by the so-called “Gang of Eight,” a bipartisan group of U.S. senators – four Republicans and four Democrats. It passed with a strong majority in the Senate but then-Speaker of the House John Boehner, a Republican, never called the bill to the House floor, allowing it to expire.
Past immigration reform bills may have failed because there was too much emphasis on border security and other issues crammed into them, said Elissa Steglich, co-director of the Immigration Clinic at the University of Texas School of Law in Austin.
“The larger you make it, the more certain it is to fail,” Steglich said. “The (Biden) administration was right to limit it to pathway to status.”
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Rep. Mo Brooks, R-Ala., claimed in a tweet that the pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants “means more jobs lost and wages suppressed for tens of millions of American citizens.”
“How can Socialists credibly claim to represent lower income Americans when Socialist border security weakness hurts so many struggling American families?” Brooks said.
However, Rep. Norma Torres, D-Calif., said that some members "are eager to secure a path forward for Dreamers and are ready to work with the incoming Administration to finally make this a reality."
Steglich pointed to past successful immigration bills – such as the Victims of Trafficking and Violence Protection Act of 2000, which offers protection for undocumented immigrants who have been victims of certain crimes – as examples that Congress can unite to pass meaningful bills. “There have been moments,” she said
One advantage of the new proposal: It’s coming early in a new Congress and new administration, with midterm elections still two years away, Meissner said.
“If it comes early, it has a chance,” she said. “The closer it gets to an election, it gets harder and harder to pass.”
Contributing: Joey Garrison and Courtney Subramanian
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Biden immigration proposal includes pathway to citizenship for some