Here’s what you need to know about Biden’s new immigration bill

Monique O. Madan
·4 min read

President Joe Biden is expected to propose a major overhaul Wednesday to the U.S. immigration system, providing broad legal protections for millions of undocumented immigrants.

The bill, known as the U.S. Citizenship Act of 2021, would represent the most sweeping immigration reform package since 1986 if passed.

Though the Trump administration pushed hardline immigration policies, the outgoing president did offer Venezuelans relief from deportation for 18 months as one of his last acts in office.

Here is everything you need to know:

Who would qualify for legal status?

The bill offers a pathway to citizenship for 11 million undocumented immigrants. Those who enter the program would be given a temporary legal status and allowed to apply for a green card after five years. They must first pass a criminal background check and show they paid taxes. Three years later, they would become eligible to apply for citizenship.

Young undocumented immigrants brought to the U.S. as children, those granted so-called Temporary Protected Status after fleeing countries hit by natural disasters or armed conflict, as well as immigrant farmworkers could be immediately eligible for a green card.

Applicants must have been present in the U.S. on Jan. 1 to qualify under the proposed bill.

What about refugees and asylum seekers?

The bill doesn’t provide a specific number on how many refugees will be permitted, but Biden promised on the campaign trail to raise that figure from 15,000 to 125,000. The proposal calls for new funding to help refugees integrate into society, including through English-language instruction.

During Donald Trump’s presidency, refugee admissions declined significantly.

If passed, the legislation would eliminate a one-year deadline for filing asylum claims. It also provides funding to reduce asylum application backlogs. The plan increases the cap for certain visas, like the U visa, which is provided to crime victims helpful to law enforcement investigations. The number of U visas permitted for approval in any given year would rise from 10,000 to 30,000.

How does border security factor in?

Unlike other immigration reform proposals, Biden’s plan is not heavy on enforcement.

The proposal focuses heavily on deploying technology that the bill’s proponents contend will allow law enforcement to more efficiently identify narcotics and other contraband at ports of entry. It also calls for expanding investigations and sanctions against drug traffickers. And it asks several agencies, including the Drug Enforcement Administration, to expand anti-gang task forces in Central America.

Biden officials have yet to offer specifics on a price tag or timeline for the increased technology and infrastructure at the border, saying part of it depends on decisions to come from Alejandro Mayorkas, Biden’s pick to lead the Department of Homeland Security.

Though Democrats have pushed for a quick confirmation for Mayorkas, on Tuesday, Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Mo., said he would object to swift consideration of the nominee. Hawley said he was he was not satisfied with Mayorkas’ response on how he will enforce federal law and secure the southern border.

This is likely to be a point of contention during debates on the legislation.

How might immigration to the U.S. from Central America change?

The Biden proposal marks a sea of change specifically in regards to how the U.S. responds to immigration from Central America.

The new president wants to enact a $4 billion aid plan to help El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras reduce corruption, violence and poverty - factors that lead many to flee.

The legislation would also establish processing centers throughout Central America to help those seeking refuge register for resettlement, either in the U.S. or a partner country. Two initiatives would be activated aimed at helping reunite children with relatives in the U.S.

What did Trump offer to Venezuelans?

In his last hours in office, Trump issued an executive order halting the removal of Venezuelans currently in the U.S.

The order applies to all Venezuelan citizens with the exception of those who are subject to extradition, are inadmissible under the Immigration and Nationality Act or were already deported, excluded, or removed prior to Jan. 20. It also authorizes their employment while in the United States.

How soon might any of these measures go into effect?

It’s still unclear. Biden needs to send the bill to Congress, which he has promised to do on his first day in office. It still needs to be passed by the House and Senate.

Though Democrats hold a slim majority in both the House and Senate, the bill could nonetheless be a challenging task. All 50 Democrats in the Senate would need to support the bill in order to force a tie with Republicans. Vice President Kamala Harris could then potentially break that tie.