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The new Biden-backed immigration bill, explained

Democrats are pushing a comprehensive approach to immigration reform — for now.

Sen. Bob Menendez (D-NJ) speaks during a news conference on June 27, 2018, to announce Senate Democrats’ legislative proposal to address the root causes of the Central American migrant crisis.
Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call
Nicole Narea covers politics and society for Vox. She first joined Vox in 2019, and her work has also appeared in Politico, Washington Monthly, and the New Republic.

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.

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.

Some Republicans have already warned the bill would “return to the radical left-wing policies that will incentivize illegal immigration and promote an unending flood of foreign nationals into the United States.”

But 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.

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.

“Even as I read and dissect this bill, the only question in my mind is HOW? Not just what. What’s the strategy?” Erika Andiola, chief advocacy officer at the immigrant rights group RAICES, tweeted. “How are Democrats planning to keep their promises to the immigrant community? Because I can assure you, the party of Trump won’t do anything good for us.”

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.

“For all of them, the broken immigration system stands in their way of being recognized for who they already are: important members of our communities,” Maria Praeli, government relations manager at the immigrant advocacy group, said in a press call.

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.

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