Democrats introduce sweeping immigration bill with 8-year pathway to citizenship

Democrats on Thursday introduced a sweeping immigration bill backed by President Joe Biden, but the legislation faces an uphill battle in the closely divided Congress, with lawmakers already suggesting a piecemeal approach might win more bipartisan support.

The U.S. Citizenship Act of 2021 will reflect priorities outlined by the president in an executive order on his first day in office. The bill’s lead sponsors — Sen. Bob Menendez, D-N.J., and Rep. Linda Sanchez, D-Calif. — unveiled the legislation in the Senate and the House.

The proposed bill, among other provisions, would:

  • Establish an 8-year path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants who arrived in the U.S. by Jan. 1
  • Provide an expedited path to citizenship for farm workers and undocumented young people who arrived in the U.S. as children with temporary protected status under DACA
  • Replace the word “alien” with “non-citizen” in law
  • Raise the per-country caps on family and employment-based legal immigration numbers
  • Repeal the penalty that prohibits undocumented immigrants who leave the country from returning to the U.S. for between three and 10 years
  • Expand transnational antidrug task forces in Central America
  • Increase funding for technology at the southern border

The path to citizenship would give undocumented immigrants five years of provisional status, after which they could apply for a green card. Three years later, they could apply for citizenship.

DACA-protected undocumented immigrants and farm workers who can provide work history could skip the five years of provisional status and have green card eligibility.

On his first day in office, Biden signed an executive action terminating the state of emergency at the southern border, declared by former President Donald Trump, and pausing border wall construction projects.

While Democrats hold thin majorities in both chambers of Congress, the legislation would require a minimum of 10 Republican votes to defeat a Senate filibuster and move the bill to a vote.

“I know that many are thinking, does the bill have any chance of passing with 60 votes? And the answer is, we won’t know until we try,” Menendez said at a press briefing Thursday.

“We know the path forward will demand negotiations with others. But we are not going to make concessions out of the gate,” Menendez said.

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The issue of border security is expected to be a flashpoint of debate between Republicans and Democrats.

“This bill does contemplate investments in all of our ports of entry,” Sanchez said. “We feel very confident that we can be working more efficiently, rather than being fixated on vanity projects like the wall, which have proven to be ineffective.”

Sanchez suggested Democrats are open to a piecemeal approach in addition to a comprehensive package.

“We are pursuing an ‘all of the above’ strategy,” Sanchez said at the news conference. “All options are on the table, and we hope to pass robust immigration reform, but there are other great immigration bills that we also will be taking up and hopefully passing as well.”

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., praised the legislation but also suggested the possibility of a piece-by-piece approach.

“I salute the president for putting forth the legislation that he did. There are others that support piecemeal, and that may be a good approach too,” Pelosi said a press briefing Thursday.

Biden and Congress are turning their attention to infrastructure as the Covid relief bill heads toward completion, so it’s unclear how much the administration and Democrats will prioritize passing comprehensive immigration reform.

When asked whether the president would support abolishing the Senate filibuster or using a budget reconciliation process that would only require a simple majority, Biden administration officials would not directly answer.

“It’s just too early to speculate about it now,” one White House official said. “We want to first defer to our sponsors of this bill about what’s possible and look to leadership on the Hill about how they want to move immigration.”

Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., who has sponsored previous bipartisan immigration legislation, including the Dream Act, said he doubts the feasibility of a comprehensive deal but sees possibility in a narrower one that would trade a path to legalization for DACA-protected undocumented immigrants for more border security.

“The more people you legalize, the more things will be required to be given, so we’ll see. It starts a conversation,” Graham told NBC News. “You just can’t legalize one group without addressing the underlying broken immigration system. You just incentivize more. So, a smaller deal may be possible.”

Congress has not passed a large, comprehensive immigration reform bill in decades. In 2013, a bipartisan bill passed in the Democratic-led Senate but was never considered in the Republican-controlled House.

At the time, conservative House Republicans opposed a broad pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants and were against comprehensive legislation, favoring a piecemeal approach that prioritized border security. Former Republican Speaker John Boehner of Ohio did not bring the bill up for a vote.

ASYLUM AND REGIONAL MIGRATION

Biden on Tuesday issued three executive orders dealing with asylum at the U.S.-Mexico border, legal immigration and reunifying families.

The asylum-focused order mandated a review of the Migrant Protection Protocols (MPP), a controversial program that pushed 65,000 asylum seekers back to Mexico to wait for U.S. court hearings.

The Biden administration has stopped adding people to the program but it has not yet outlined how it will process the claims of those already enrolled.

LEGAL IMMIGRATION

Biden’s executive order on legal immigration called for a review of a Trump-era rule that made it harder for poorer immigrants to obtain permanent residency in the United States.

The review of the so-called “public charge” rule is expected to start the process to rescind it, according to two people familiar with the plan.

FAMILY REUNIFICATION

Biden on Tuesday created a task force to reunite migrant families who were separated at the U.S.-Mexico border by Trump’s 2018 “zero tolerance” border strategy.

The task force, which will by led by U.S. Department of Homeland (DHS) Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas, will consider the possibility of issuing visas or using other forms of immigration relief to reunite separated families.

IMMIGRATION REFORM AND ‘DREAMERS’

Biden sent an immigration reform bill to key lawmakers on his first day in office that would provide an eight-year pathway to citizenship for many of the estimated 11 million people living in the country unlawfully.

The proposal would also offer permanent protection for young migrants in the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, known as “Dreamers.” Started by former President Barack Obama, the program provides deportation protection and other benefits to approximately 645,000 people.

Biden faces long odds to win over enough Republicans in a closely divided Congress to pass the bill, congressional aides, experts and advocates told Reuters.

TRAVEL AND VISA BANS

On his first day in office, Biden rescinded Trump’s controversial travel ban blocking travelers from 13 mostly Muslim-majority and African countries.

Trump issued the ban shortly after taking office in 2017, sparking protests and legal challenges. The U.S. Supreme Court upheld a revised version of the ban in 2018.

During the coronavirus pandemic, Trump also issued proclamations blocking the entry of many temporary foreign workers and applicants for green cards. While Biden has criticized the restrictions, he has not yet moved to reverse them.

INTERIOR ENFORCEMENT

Biden on his first day in office repealed a 2017 Trump executive order that intensified U.S. immigration enforcement within the country.

Following Biden’s rescission, the then-acting DHS secretary issued a memo that outlined new priorities for enforcement.

The memo called for immigration officers to prioritize national security threats, people who arrived in the United States on or after Nov. 1, 2020, and people with certain criminal convictions who are determined to be a public safety threat.

The DHS memo also ordered a 100-day pause on many deportations so that DHS could focus its resources on border management amid the coronavirus pandemic.

The state of Texas challenged the deportation moratorium in court days later and a federal judge temporarily blocked it on Jan. 26.

BORDER WALL

After taking office, Biden immediately paused construction of the U.S.-Mexico border wall, with some exceptions, and ended an emergency declaration that helped authorize funding for it.

Biden also directed a review of the legality of funding and contracting methods used for wall construction and supported plans to redirect funding.

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