During his first days in office, President Joe Biden’s first agenda is to address the long-elusive goal of immigration reform with a groundbreaking legislative package and immigration bill that will grant a quicker pathway to citizenship for an estimated 11 million immigrants who are in the country without legal status.
Biden’s immigration reform bill: “Restoring humanity to our immigration system”
On Saturday, Biden’s incoming chief of staff, Ron Klain, sent a memo to the administration’s senior staff that said the new president’s agenda includes “the immigration bill he will send to Congress on his first day in office,” which Klain asserted would “restore humanity to our immigration system.”
Biden’s proposal lays out what would be the most sweeping and comprehensive immigration reform package since President Reagan’s Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986, which granted legal status to 3 million people who were in the country without documentation.
In an interview with Univision, VP Kamala Harris gave a preview of the bill’s provisions. The new immigration bill will provide shorter pathways to citizenship for hundreds of thousands of people, including automatic green cards for immigrants with temporary protected status (TPS) and Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) status. Wait times for U.S. citizenship would also decrease from 13 to eight years under this bill, and there would be an increase in the number of immigration judges to relieve backlog in cases.
This bill differs from many previous immigration bills passed under both Democratic and Republican administrations. The key difference being that the proposed legislation “would not contain any provisions directly linking an expansion of immigration with stepped-up enforcement and security measures,” said Marielena Hincapié, executive director of the National Immigration Law Center, who has been consulted on the proposal by Biden staffers.
“This notion concerning immigration enforcement and giving Republicans everything they kept asking for … was flawed from the beginning,” she said.
Hincapié added Biden’s team would be able to bypass legislation to quickly make a number of administrative changes.
She expects him to announce several executive actions that would expand DACA, overturn Trump’s 2017 travel ban targeting Muslim-majority countries and rescind Trump’s public charge rule, which allowed authorities to deny green cards to immigrants who use food stamps or other public benefits.
Setting a new tone: “It’s not going to be about walls.”
Under Biden’s immigration bill, immigrants would become eligible for legal permanent residence after five years and for U.S. citizenship after an additional three years — a faster path to citizenship than in previous immigration bills.
“I think this bill is going to lay an important marker in our country’s history,” said Lorella Praeli, an immigrant and longtime activist who has been talking with Biden’s staff, noting that the measure “will not seek to trade immigration relief for enforcement, and that’s huge.”
Praeli, president of Community Change Action, a progressive group based in Washington that advocates for immigrants, described the bill as “an important opening act.”
“If there is a silver lining to the Trump era, it’s that it should now be clear to everyone that our system needs a massive overhaul and we can no longer lead with detention and deportation,” she said.
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On the topic of undocumented essential workers, Rep. Joaquin Castro (D-Texas) said “It’s time for essential workers to no longer be treated as disposable, but to be celebrated and welcomed as American citizens. If your labor feeds, builds and cares for our nation, you have earned the right to stay here with full legal protection, free from fear of deportation.”
Additionally, Leon Rodriguez, who was director of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services from 2014 to 2017, said that, “the public attitude toward immigration enforcement is at a different place in 2021 than it was at any point prior to the Trump administration. I think there just has been a lot of things about how immigration enforcement was executed under the Trump administration that didn’t sit right with a lot of Americans.”
However, he believes Biden’s overall approach will set an entirely different tone in the conversation of immigration reform in America. He sees a more hopeful, positive era ahead.
“It’s not going to be about walls and keeping people in Mexico,” he said.
While the ambitious bill is a great first step for the new administration, the bill will likely face months of political pushback on Capitol Hill by conservative voters, even with Democrats holding the White House and slender majorities in both chambers of Congress.
Still, if the broader bill were to die or take too long to pass, there are alternate venues Democratic leadership can take to legalize a substantial group of people — specifically the estimated 5 million essential workers now in the country without legal status.
One possible alternative would be to take advantage of COVID relief measures. Democratic leadership could decide to include measures offering legal status to essential workers via a process known as budget reconciliation. This process would only need 51 votes to pass the Senate.
“We are talking about potentially 5 million workers who have put their own lives on the line as essential workers,” Praeli said. “You cannot be essential and deportable.”