Democrats introduced on Thursday what would be the first landmark piece of legislation of the Biden presidency. The New York Times reports, Democratic Lawmakers Introduce Biden’s Immigration Overhaul in House:
President Biden’s allies on Capitol Hill on Thursday unveiled a comprehensive overhaul of the nation’s immigration system, describing it as a humane response to four years of President Donald J. Trump’s assault on immigrants.
The U.S. Citizenship Act of 2021, formally introduced by a dozen Democratic lawmakers in the House and Senate, amounts to a lengthy wish list for pro-immigration activists and a down payment on Mr. Biden’s campaign promise to provide a path to citizenship for 11 million undocumented immigrants.
It would allow virtually all undocumented immigrants to eventually apply for citizenship; increase legal immigration; add measures to secure ports of entry and speed processing of asylum seekers; and invest $4 billion in the economies of Central American countries to reduce migration.
“We’re here today because last November 80 million Americans voted against Donald Trump and against everything he stood for,” Senator Bob Menendez, Democrat of New Jersey, said at a virtual news conference. “They voted to restore common sense, compassion and competence in our government, and part of that mandate is fixing our immigration system, which is a cornerstone of Trump’s hateful horror show.”
Nicole Narea at Vox has an explainer, The new Biden-backed immigration bill, explained:
Democrats in Congress introduced a comprehensive immigration reform bill on Thursday crafted around the priorities President Joe Biden articulated on his first day in office, including a path to citizenship for the estimated 10.5 million undocumented immigrants living in the US.
If passed, the long-anticipated bill, known as the US Citizenship Act of 2021, would mark the most sweeping reform of the US immigration system since 1986 — and would be a rebuke of former President Donald Trump’s nativist agenda.
But it’s unlikely that the legislation, which is a kind of mission statement for the Democratic Party on immigration, will attract the 10 Republican votes needed to proceed in the Senate — unless Democrats eliminate or alter the filibuster in such a way that could allow them to pass the bill without a single Republican vote.
Do Sens. Krysten Sinema and Joe Manchin really want to step into the shoes of Southern Dixiecrat segregationists who used the filibuster to thwart cvil rights bills during the Jim Crow era, to preserve this anti-democratic anachronism of the Senate? This is a major human/civil rights bill. History will judge them harshly if they put preserving the filibuster over dealing with the long overdue overhaul of the broken immigration system.
The centerpiece of the bill is an eight-year path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants who arrived in the US prior to January 1, 2021. It also includes provisions that would address the underlying causes of migration, expand the number of available visas and green cards, invest in technology and infrastructure at ports of entry on the border, remove obstacles to asylum, and shore up protections for immigrant workers.
Noticeably absent from the bill are provisions that would promote the kind of border security and interior enforcement measures that Republicans have long sought. For example, previous Republican proposals would have boosted funding for the construction of the border wall, made it a crime to be present in the US without authorization, and required children to be indefinitely detained together with their parents while they faced deportation proceedings.
Democrats have decided not to concede the “border security” demands of Republicans up front, only to see these disingenuous Republicans vote en masse against comprehensive immigration reform anyway. There is no good faith on the part of Republicans.
A political party which is now firmly committed to white nationalism needs to have a “bogeyman” to frighten their white nationalist base voters with fear mongering over “the browning of America,” and Central American immigrants are the essential “bogeyman.” They don’t want to reform the broken immigration system, they rely on it to remain broken.
Democrats have so far been reluctant to say they are willing to bargain with Republicans on beefing up border security beyond modernizing ports of entry or narrowing the bill’s legalization provisions.
Sen. Bob Menendez, the lead co-sponsor of the bill in the Senate, said in a press call Thursday that the reason comprehensive immigration reform has failed time and time again over the last two decades is because Democrats have “capitulated too quickly to fringe voices who have refused to accept the humanity and contributions of immigrants to our country and dismiss everything … as amnesty.”
“We know the path forward will demand negotiations with others. But we’re not going to make concessions out of the gate,” Menendez said. “We will never win an argument that we don’t have the courage to make.”
California Rep. Linda Sánchez, who introduced a companion bill in the House on Thursday, also warned during the call that “cynicism can defeat us before we even try.”
Though advocates have expressed openness to starting out with smaller bills that might gain traction more easily — such as those legalizing DREAMers who came to the US as children, as well as farmworkers and other essential workers — Democrats are currently prioritizing comprehensive reform. In a call with reporters Wednesday, a senior administration official didn’t rule out the possibility that Democrats could also pursue piecemeal legislation, but said fixing the entire immigration system was imperative. [See Biden Signals He’s Flexible on Immigration Overhaul].
Practical considerations about the bill’s prospects have nevertheless continued to plague advocates who are simply trying to get relief for as many people as quickly as possible after four years of their communities living under siege.
The bill would implement reforms to legal immigration
The centerpiece of the bill is a provision that would allow undocumented immigrants to obtain legal status and, eventually, citizenship.
The process would take at least eight years. To qualify, immigrants would have had to be physically present in the US on or before January 1, 2021, unless granted a waiver on humanitarian grounds.
Initially, immigrants would be able to obtain a work permit and travel abroad with the assurance that they would be permitted to reenter the US. After five years, they could apply for a green card if they pass background checks and pay taxes. Immigrants covered by the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program and Temporary Protected Status, as well as farmworkers, would be able to apply for green cards immediately, however.
After holding their green card for three years and passing additional background checks, they could apply for US citizenship.
The impact of such legislation cannot be overestimated: It could potentially bring millions of people out of the shadows.
Among other reforms to the legal immigration system, the bill notably includes a provision to prevent presidents from issuing categorial bans on immigration. It would also remove barriers to family-based immigration, including lengthy visa backlogs and employment-based green cards, which have been relatively inaccessible for workers in lower-wage industries.
It would repeal Clinton-era restrictions that prevent people who have been present in the US without authorization for more than six months from reentering the country for a period of three to 10 years. Many of those immigrants would otherwise be eligible to apply for legal status, often through a US citizen or a spouse who holds a green card.
It would also strengthen protections for immigrant workers by helping to ensure that victims of serious labor violations receive visas, protecting those who face workplace retaliation from deportation, and setting up a commission to make improvements to the employment verification process.
In addition to substantive changes to the legal immigration system, the bill would also introduce rhetorical changes, substituting “noncitizen” for the word “alien” in federal immigration laws.
The bill seeks to address the underlying causes of migration
The bill aims to bring to fruition Biden’s vision for a regional approach to migration, addressing the factors that drive Central American migrants to flee their home countries.
As vice president, Biden developed a $750 million program in tandem with the governments of El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras — Central America’s Northern Triangle countries — aimed at improving economic development and curbing violence and corruption in the region, but the Trump administration halted that effort in March 2019.
The new bill builds on that concept, allocating $4 billion over the course of four years to address those push factors and incentivize Northern Triangle governments to improve living conditions.
It would also set up new processing centers throughout the region to register qualifying migrants as refugees and resettle them in the US. And it would reunify separated families by reinstituting the Central American Minors program — under which children can join their relatives in the US — and creating a new parole program for those whose family members in the US sponsored them for a visa.
The bill also seeks to improve the capacity of Central American countries to process and protect asylum seekers and refugees by working with the United Nations and other nongovernmental organizations.
The proposal appears to be substantially differently from the agreements the Trump administration brokered with the Northern Triangle countries, which allowed the US to return asylum seekers to those countries to seek protections — agreements Biden has vowed to terminate. The bill does not create any kind of obligation for asylum seekers to seek protection outside the US, but would instead aim to ensure migrants have due process and information about their rights, in addition to being properly screened and given documentation that allows them to move freely and access social services.
The bill could boost funding for immigration enforcement with a focus on technology
The bill would allow for an unspecified increase in funding for immigration enforcement. Department of Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas would have to assess the precise dollar amount required, but that could prove controversial, given that many immigrant advocates have spent the last four years calling for lawmakers to abolish or at least defund the immigration enforcement agencies, whose budgets ballooned under Trump.
Those funds would go toward improving screening technology, officer training, infrastructure at ports of entry, and border security between ports of entry, favoring alternatives to a border wall.
The bill would also establish mechanisms to address misconduct among DHS’s ranks, increasing staff at the DHS Office of Professional Responsibility, which investigates such cases, and requiring the agency to create a use-of-force policy. It would be a critical first step in reforming the agency, which became politicized under Trump, at times acting as the mouthpiece of his immigration and “law and order” agenda.
It would also enhance penalties for criminal gangs and drug traffickers.
The Times continues:
The Biden administration also acted on Thursday to curtail the number of arrests and deportations of undocumented immigrants, issuing temporary guidance requiring immigration agents to seek approval before trying to deport individuals who do not present national security threats, have felony convictions or have recently tried to cross the border illegally.
The memo, issued by the acting director of Immigration and Customs Enforcement, says that undocumented immigrants who do not meet those three criteria are not considered priorities for deportation. Alejandro Mayorkas, the homeland security secretary, said he would issue permanent guidance about deportation priorities within 90 days.
“Today’s interim operating guidance requires ICE personnel to review cases on an individualized basis, in accordance with the law, and encourages coordination between in-the-field personnel and agency leadership,” officials said in the statement released by ICE.
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The legislation appears to start with broad backing from Democratic groups that have fought over provisions of previous comprehensive immigration measures, including union groups and pro-business Democrats.
But some pro-immigration advocacy organizations have already signaled that they believe lawmakers should pursue more limited measures aimed at granting citizenship to discrete groups of undocumented people, especially those who are broadly sympathetic. The groups argue that it is very unlikely that Mr. Biden will succeed in winning the Republican support he needs to pass the bill.
Mr. Menendez acknowledged that it would be difficult to persuade 10 Republican senators to join all 50 of the senators who caucus with Democrats to back a comprehensive bill; 60 votes are needed to overcome a filibuster that would almost be guaranteed.
But the senator rejected arguments that Congress should focus on smaller measures.
“We will never win an argument that we don’t have the courage to make,” Mr. Menendez said. “We will do the righteous thing and make our case for both inclusive and lasting immigration reform.”
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White House officials said Mr. Biden was eager to “restart conversations” with Democrats and Republicans about immigration after four years in which Mr. Trump undermined the nation’s system, curtailing legal immigration and shutting the border to asylum seekers.
Jen Psaki, the White House press secretary, said Mr. Biden was willing to negotiate as the legislation moved through Congress.
“He is all too familiar, or very familiar, with the fact that a bill proposed typically does not look like the final bill signed,” said Ms. Psaki, nodding to the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, or C.H.C. “But it is just being formally proposed today. We are eager to work with Democrats, Republicans, members of the C.H.C. and others who have been working passionately on these issues for a long period of time.”