After weeks of deliberations, congressional Democrats and the White House on Thursday unveiled an immigration overhaul bill that would reshape U.S. immigration laws and allow millions of immigrants living in the country without authorization to obtain legal status.
The 353-page U.S. Citizenship Act would create a two-tier legalization program which would automatically make farmworkers, Temporary Protected Status (TPS) holders and undocumented immigrants who came to the U.S. as children eligible for green cards, according to a 66-page summary of the legislation. After three years, they could apply to become U.S. citizens.
All other eligible unauthorized immigrants would be able to request temporary deportation relief and work permits while being placed on an eight-year pathway towards U.S. citizenship. Petitioners would all need to undergo background and national security checks, as well as file taxes and pay application fees.
The plan would not benefit new arrivals, as all prospective applicants would need to prove they were in the U.S. before January 1, 2021. The secretary of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) would be allowed to issue humanitarian waivers to this requirement for immigrants deported during the Trump administration as long as they prove they lived in the U.S. for at least three years before their deportation.
California Congresswoman Linda Sánchez and New Jersey Senator Bob Menendez, two Democrats with past experience crafting immigration policy, will introduce the proposal in the House and Senate, respectively.
During a call with reporters on Thursday, Sánchez said the bill's passage would mark "the full realization of the American dream" for millions of immigrants.
"They are our teachers, our classmates, entrepreneurs and small business owners, parents, students, members of the military who take an oath to defend us, they are our neighbors and yes, they are the essential workers that are carrying our community forward during this COVID crisis," Sánchez said. "They deserve permanent relief."
The bill, based on parametersby the Biden administration last month, is expected to be championed by the White House as one of President Biden's domestic policy priorities during his first year in office. However, the sweeping proposal will need to garner unanimous Democratic support and at least 10 Republican votes in the Senate under current Senate rules — a threshold that has previously doomed other immigration reform plans.
Asked whether the White House would be open to considering potential Republican-led amendments to the bill that would increase any type of immigration enforcement, an administration official didn't rule it out.
"If Republicans want to come forward and work on immigration, I think the president is open to working with anyone who wants to get something done and get a bill to his desk," the official said during a call with reporters late Wednesday.
The official, who requested anonymity during the briefing, said Mr. Biden is "restarting a conversation" about "sensible and effective border security."
"We know that a majority of drugs are coming through the ports of entry. And so, we're authorizing technology and also repairing infrastructure but we're really trying to get at the root causes of why people are coming and addressing legal channels (of immigration)," the official continued. "We're open to a conversation with anyone about this but we think this is a much more comprehensive way to deal with this issue than just simply, you know, a wall."
Discussing the possibility of splitting the massive legislation into separate bills, Menendez said Democrats are prioritizing "bold, inclusive and lasting immigration reform" during this Congress, saying previous efforts were thwarted because Democratic lawmakers capitulated to fringe voices.
"We know the path forward will demand negotiations with others. But we're not going to make concessions out of the gate. We're not going to start with 2 million undocumented people, instead of 11 million," Menendez said during the call on Thursday. "We will never win an argument that we don't have the courage to make."
In addition to the legalization provisions, the bill would scrap Clinton-era sanctions that bar undocumented immigrants who leave the U.S. from reentering the country for three or 10 years, as well as curb the president's power to issue categorical bans on groups of immigrants. It would also substitute all references to "alien" in immigration laws with the term "noncitizen."
Another centerpiece of the bill is an expansion of legal immigration. The plan would raise the current per-country caps for family and employment-based immigrant visas and reassign unused visas. It would render spouses and children of green card holders "immediate family members," exempting them from the per-country caps.
The bill would increase the annual allocation of employment-based visas from 140,000 to 170,000, as well as the yearly ceiling for diversity visas from 55,000 to 80,000. An additional 10,000 visas would be reserved for a pilot program designed for immigrants who will contribute to the economic development of local communities.
The plan would give the Biden administration $1 billion annually between 2022 and 2025 to finance efforts to reduce the violence, poverty, crime and corruption that fuel U.S.-bound migration from Central America. It would also require the establishment of processing centers in the region where Central Americans, including at-risk children, could apply for parole or refugee status to come to the U.S. legally.
Other provisions ask DHS to implement "smart" border security measures and allocate funds to expand the infrastructure that ports of entry have to process asylum applicants and intercept illicit drugs. DHS would be required to issue new guidelines governing the care of migrant minors that would prohibit the department from separating children from their parents for the purposes of deterring migration or encouraging compliance with U.S. immigration law.
The plan would also allocate 30,000 visas for victims of serious crimes who assist law enforcement; eliminate the current 1-year deadline asylum-seekers have to apply for U.S. refuge; and instruct DHS to expand alternatives to detention for migrants in deportation proceedings, particularly families with children.