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What Biden wants to do on immigration, briefly explained

Biden’s immigration plan would include a pathway to citizenship. But it could face an uncertain future in Congress.

President-elect Joe Biden speaks about his plan for combating the coronavirus and jump-starting the nation’s economy on January 14, in Wilmington, Delaware.
Alex Wong/Getty Images

President-elect Joe Biden plans to introduce a sweeping package of immigration reforms — including a pathway to citizenship for more than 11 million undocumented immigrants — shortly after he takes office, according to the Los Angeles Times.

The proposed bill provides the clearest picture yet of Biden’s immigration agenda, and it has been greeted favorably by immigration activists.

At the center of the measure would be an eight-year track to citizenship: Immigrants would be eligible for legal permanent resident status after five years, and for citizenship three years after that.

Specific groups — such as DREAMers, recipients of Temporary Protected Status, and essential workers — would be eligible for a quicker path to citizenship. That change, as well as other portions of the plan, was previewed by Vice President-elect Kamala Harris in a conversation with Univision journalist Ilia Calderón this week.

“It’s a smarter and much more humane way of approaching immigration,” Harris told Calderón of the proposed package of reforms, according to Politico.

Biden and Harris both met with immigration activists on Thursday to discuss their immigration agenda. Hector Sanchez Barba, who leads the group Mi Familia Vota and attended the private meeting, told Politico it is “the most aggressive agenda that I have seen on immigration reform from day one — not only the legislative package, but also executive orders.”

Details about the Biden-Harris plan have emerged even as congressional Democrats unveil their own immigration measures.

Texas Rep. Joaquin Castro, along with Senator-designate Alex Padilla, who will replace Harris for California in the Senate once she is sworn in as vice president on January 20, detailed a plan to create an expedited pathway to citizenship for undocumented frontline workers on a press call Friday.

“Undocumented essential workers braved harsh conditions on farms, in packed meat factories, and took buses to clean homes, offices, and medical facilities,” Padilla, who was previously California’s secretary of state, wrote on Twitter this week. “It’s time to offer these essential community members a pathway to citizenship in the next COVID bill.”

If passed, the proposals from Biden, and from Castro and Padilla, would represent major legislative victories. According to the LA Times, the Biden-Harris plan would be the “most sweeping and comprehensive immigration 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.”

But though some members of Congress have encouraged Biden to take bold steps on the issue — as the bill outlined by the Times would be — others have been more cautious.

“I’m not ruling out a larger bill, but I want to take it a step at a time,” Democratic Sen. Dick Durbin told Politico. “I don’t want to overplay my hand. I want to be mindful that bipartisan support is essential to victory in the Senate.”

Durbin, who will take up the title of Senate Majority Whip in the new 50-50 Senate after Harris becomes the tie-breaking vote on January 20, is the No. 2 Democrat in the Senate and is set to chair the Senate Judiciary Committee once Democrats claim the majority.

Biden’s plan stands in stark contrast to Trump’s immigration policies

Regardless of the prospects for a more sweeping Biden immigration bill in Congress, the president-elect plans to pursue an immigration agenda radically different from his predecessor’s when he assumes the presidency on January 20.

Trump, who rallied supporters in 2016 with a promise to “build a great wall” and make Mexico pay for it (Mexico did not pay for it), spent his four years in office pursuing a draconian immigration agenda and dramatically slashing immigration to the US — measures spearheaded by Trump’s top immigration adviser, Stephen Miller, who has deep ties to white supremacy.

Biden’s agenda, by comparison, would see border wall construction grind to a halt, eliminate Trump’s travel ban on Muslim-majority countries, and see the annual US refugee cap rebound to 125,000 refugees, compared to the cap of 15,000 imposed by Trump.

According to Reuters, Biden has also indicated he intends to end Trump’s “Remain in Mexico” policy for asylum seekers at the southern border and extend Temporary Protected Status to Venezuelan refugees in the US.

Biden has also promised to restore the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, which was first created during the Obama administration, and said he will ask Congress to make the program permanent.

Trump attempted to end DACA, which protects about 700,000 immigrants known as DREAMers, during his first year in office but was blocked by the Supreme Court in June 2020.

As Vox’s Nicole Narea wrote in August last year, Biden’s picks to lead key US immigration agencies could also lead to some significant policy shifts.

According to Narea,

Biden has proposed some ways that he would try to change the culture at the immigration agencies. He would focus on deporting only immigrants who pose a threat to national security and public safety — a designation that relies largely on the discretion of individual immigration officers. He would also improve accountability for immigration agencies like CBP and ICE. (His plan isn’t specific about what this accountability would look like.) He calls for ending for-profit detention centers, which have been sites of some of the most egregious abuses of immigrants in recent years. And he would work towards making the immigration courts more independent from the DOJ.

In November, Biden announced that he had chosen Alejandro Mayorkas to run the Department of Homeland Security. If confirmed, Mayorkas, who was deputy DHS secretary during the Obama administration, would make history as the first immigrant and the first Hispanic person to serve as DHS secretary, according to the Washington Post.

“When I was very young, the United States provided my family and me a place of refuge,” Mayorkas said on Twitter after his selection was announced. “Now, I have been nominated to be the DHS Secretary and oversee the protection of all Americans and those who flee persecution in search of a better life for themselves and their loved ones.”

Mayorkas’s tweet also underscores the major tonal shift that a Biden administration will bring to immigration issues, even beyond policy specifics. And immigration reform advocates say that a sweeping immigration package would send an even clearer message.

“I believe that our nation has been traumatized,” Congressional Hispanic Caucus chair Rep. Raul Ruiz told the Los Angeles Times. “We need to be able to change the narrative to heal from that, to build trust amongst communities and to tone down the hateful rhetoric from the Trump administration. And to really show — not only ourselves but the world — that America still at its core is good and will uphold our humanitarian values.”