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Biden Starts His Presidency with Immigration Reform Bill

On his first day in office, President Joe Biden signed a document to send the U.S. Citizenship Act of 2021 to Congress “to restore humanity and American values to our immigration system,” according to a recent fact sheet. It not only undoes some of Trump Administration’s actions to limit immigration over the course of the last four years, but it goes farther and addresses some of the conditions that led to those actions. As immigration lawyers and Americans, we hope this act will become law. America has yet to have a serious conversation about its relationship with immigrants, and undocumented immigrants particularly, and this act takes important steps in the right direction. 

It makes proposals in three areas: “Provide Pathways to Citizenship and Strengthen Labor Protections,” “Prioritize Smart Border Controls,” and “Address Root Causes of Migration.” Since the immigration portion is most relevant to us, we’ll focus on that. The fact sheet is online for those who want to see all of the proposals.

The Bill would

  • create an earned roadmap to citizenship for undocumented individuals. 
    • Undocumented immigrants would be able to apply for temporary legal status including a green card after five years if they pass criminal and national security background checks and pay their taxes. DACA recipients, TPS holders, and certain immigrant workers would be eligible for green cards immediately. After three years, all green card holders that pass additional background checks and demonstrate knowledge of English and U.S. civics and apply to become citizens. Applicants must have been present in the United States on or before January 1, 2021 to be eligible, but the Secretary for the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) may waive the presence requirement under certain circumstances.
  • keep families together. 
    • Family-based immigration will be reformed to clear backlogs, recapture unused visas, reduce lengthy wait times, and increase per-country visa caps. The “three and 10-year bars” will be eliminated along with other provisions that keep families apart. It will include recognition of permanent partnerships and eliminates discrimination facing LGBTQ+ families. The bill would also provide protections for orphans, widows, children, and Filipino veterans who fought with the U.S. in World War II. It would also allow immigrants with approved family-sponsored petitions to join their families on a temporary basis while they wait for green cards to become available. 
  • embrace diversity. 
    • The bill would increase Diversity Visas from 55,000 to 80,000, prohibit discrimination based on religion, and limit presidential authority to issue future bans based on religion.
  • promote immigrant and refugee integration and citizenship. 
    • The bill provides new funding to expand programs that promote integration and inclusion, increase English-language instruction, and provide assistance for individuals that are taking steps toward citizenship.
  • grow our economy. 
    • The bill would clear employment-based visa backlogs, reclaim unused visas, reduce wait times and eliminate per-country visa caps. It would make it easier for graduates from American universities with advanced STEM degrees to stay in the country, and eliminate unnecessary hurdles for employment-based green cards. It would grant dependents of H-1B visa holders work authorization, and children would not be able to “age out” of the system. It would create a pilot program to stimulate regional economic development, give DHS the ability to adjust green cards based on economic conditions, and create incentives to pay non-immigrant workers to prevent unfair competition for American workers.
  • protect workers from exploitation and improve the employment verification process. 
    • DHS and the Department of Labor will establish a commission composed of labor, employer, and civil rights organizations to recommend ways to improve the employment verification process. Workers who suffer serious labor violations and cooperate with worker protection agencies will be granted greater access to U visa relief. Workers that are victims of workplace retaliation will be protected from deportation, as will migrant and seasonal workers.

The other sections propose ways to step up border enforcement and work with El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras to address the corruption, violence, and poverty that frequently prompt people from those countries to seek asylum in the United States.

These measures would be positive steps forward, and what he has proposed would be the largest legislative action on immigration reform since 1986. Since Trump animated his base with anti-immigrant rhetoric and proposals, the act will face significant challenges, particularly in the Senate. Senator Marco Rubio has already rejected the bill, saying, “There are many issues I think we can work cooperatively with President-elect Biden, but a blanket amnesty for people who are here unlawfully isn’t going to be one of them.”    

It’s too early to handicap the probability of the act passing and in what form, but it’s a good and unexpected sign that Biden is choosing to do something hard and consequential to start his presidency, and that he is spending political capital on immigration. And after four years of the government’s actions toward immigrants being driven by stereotypes, conjecture, and unfounded beliefs, it’s also reassuring to see a legislative proposal based on the reality of undocumented immigrants’ lives and the way they and their families have become parts of not only our communities but the American story. 

Photo by Miko Guziuk on Unsplash

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