President Joe Biden plans to introduce a bill that would open a path to citizenship for 11 million undocumented immigrants living in the United States, garnering cautious optimism from immigration advocates.
The new president also promised a 100-day halt to deportations of people already in the country, while the proposed bill would recognise the US as a nation of immigrants, changing the legal term “alien” to “noncitizen”.
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Advocates celebrated the proposal, which Biden planned to introduce as early as Wednesday – the same day he took office, as the most progressive immigration legislation since Barack Obama’s administration’s failed reforms in 2013.
But they cautioned that it is too early to know if Biden can garner the 60 votes needed to pass the legislation in the US Senate, which is evenly divided between Democrats and Republicans, and urged Biden to use executive action to guarantee immigrants are protected. A factsheet outlining the proposal has been made public.
“We welcome the effort to create a path to citizenship for folks who are undocumented in the US but this is also a moment that we need the new president to use executive power,” said Jacinta Gonzalez, senior campaign organiser at Mijente, which advocates for Latinx and Chicanx people.
She said immigrants have been under attack over the last four years under President Donald Trump, who pursued hardline immigration policies such as forcible family separation, mass deportations, travel bans and curbs on asylum eligibility.
“We need him [Biden] to use the full power of his office to reduce harm that has been caused by [Immigration and Customs Enforcement],” Gonzalez said.
If passed, the US Citizenship Act of 2021 paves an eight-year path to citizenship for undocumented people, who number an estimated 11 million in the country.
The bill would allow undocumented people who pay taxes and pass background checks to apply for temporary legal status and apply for green cards after five years.
It would also allow so-called “Dreamers” – undocumented people who came to the US as children – as well as Temporary Protected Status holders and immigrant farm workers to immediately apply for green cards without waiting five years.
After an additional three years, all green card holders who pass background checks, speak English and show knowledge of US civics can apply for citizenship. This pathway applies to applicants already in the country as of January 1, 2021.
The bill would also reunify families kept apart by current rules. Marriage to a US citizen and other family relationships currently allow immigrants to obtain green cards, but some barriers delay access, according to the American Immigration Council.
These barriers include three and 10-year bars to visas that stop people from returning to the US if they leave after previously being in the country illegally. The 2021 bill would remove these restrictions to allow families to reunite, and it would allow immigrants with family sponsorship to join family members in the US while they wait for green cards.
Root causes of migration
Biden has promised to reverse Trump’s travel ban on Muslim-majority countries on his first day in office. The bill would go further, prohibiting discrimination based on religion and limiting future presidents from issuing similar travel bans.
Central American migration towards the US’s southern border continues with another caravan from Honduras blocked by Guatemalan soldiers this week, and asylum seekers continue to wait in camps along the Mexican border.
The bill aims to address the root causes of migration from Central America and increases assistance to El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras, where two massive hurricanes in November intensified existing violence and economic hardship.
The incoming administration wants to create legal channels to protect people from Central America as they flee their home countries. Improvements to immigration courts and support for asylum seekers are also proposed.
However, Biden said at a December press conference he did not want to “end up with two million people on our border”. His policy adviser, Susan Rice, said on a Spanish wire service that the border will not suddenly open as Biden takes office.
Gonzalez said Biden should use executive action to bring accountability for ICE abuses and overhaul the system.
The president has promised a moratorium on deportations for 100 days, but Gonzalez added that an indefinite halt to deportations and enforcement action plus the immediate release of people from detention facilities is necessary, too.
Fairness for farm workers
Leydy Rangel, spokeswoman for the United Farm Workers Foundation, said she was “elated” to read news of the bill. Rangel paid for college by working on farms. She said her parents, undocumented farm workers from Mexico, would benefit from Biden’s bill if it becomes law.
Growing up, she saw her parents come home after work covered in dirt from bending down to pick and prune crops. “At any point, your parents could be picked up and deported,” she said, describing the anxiety of receiving calls from her parents late at night when she got older.
“Farm workers have proven themselves worthy of legal status but that right hasn’t been extended to them yet,” Rangel said. “We will now finally have an opportunity to be relieved from this pervasive fear that consumes our entire lives.”
The bill would protect immigrant workers from exploitation by providing greater access to U visa relief for those who suffer serious labour violations, protecting workers who are victims of workplace retaliation from deportation, and increasing penalties for employers who break labour laws.
Biden’s bill is similar to France’s recent move extending citizenship to immigrant front-line workers. Farm workers are also essential workers on the front lines of the COVID-19 pandemic. “It’s a great way to honour the essential workers in the country,” Rangel said.
‘Sigh of relief’
Jorge Loweree, policy director at the American Immigration Council, said he is looking forward to seeing the full text of the bill but feels encouraged by the “broad and generous path to citizenship” it proposes.
Over the last decade, debate around immigration reform has been closely tied to enforcement, which Loweree said has “operated on steroids in recent years” and created “extraordinary hardship” for immigrants.
The last major legislative change to US immigration was in 1996 and coincided with criminal justice reform initiatives, he explained, marking the start of the punitive nature of immigration laws and detention systems in the US.
The most recent effort to reform the system was under the Obama administration in 2013. “There is bipartisan support for immigration reform, but it’s a matter of the details and political will,” he said.
Recently public support has shifted in favour of immigrants, but he said it is not clear what that will mean for Biden’s bill. To reverse Trump’s harsh policies, Loweree said Biden should pursue executive action at the same time as a permanent legislative fix.
But he said if it passes, the bill will mean undocumented people no longer have to continuously look over their shoulder. “Many people will be able to breathe a sigh of relief.”