Joe Biden will propose a broad immigration overhaul on his first day as president, including a shortened pathway to U.S. citizenship for undocumented migrants — a complete reversal from Donald Trump’s immigration restrictions and crackdowns, but one that faces major roadblocks in Congress.
The new president’s legislation would allow the roughly 11 million immigrants living illegally in the U.S. to gain citizenship within eight years instead of 13, according to a Biden transition official. Unlike past reform measures, it does not include an explicit trade-off of enhanced border security.
The proposal would grant work permits for the spouses and children of people with temporary visas. But it would not expand the number of high-skilled foreign workers admitted on H-1B visas, which are widely used in the U.S. technology industry but sometimes criticized by labor groups.
With the plan, Biden seeks to deliver on a major campaign promise to Latino voters and immigrant-rights groups, many of whom were alienated and outraged by Trump’s restrictions on legal immigration, police raids on the homes and workplaces of undocumented people living in the U.S., and his fortification of the border with Mexico. But the bill as proposed almost certainly won’t pass a narrowly divided Congress, and even if it is amended to better reflect Republican concerns, odds are long that lawmakers will finally unknot a policy that’s confounded Washington for decades.
“It’s a powerful message that this is a priority,” said John Sandweg, former acting director of Immigration and Customs Enforcement under President Barack Obama. “During the Obama administration, there was a tremendous frustration that the bill wasn’t offered early in the administration and so this sends a big message.”
Speaking on the Senate floor Tuesday, Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer said getting a final comprehensive immigration bill through Congress is one of his leading goals as he takes over as majority leader. It must, he said, include a pathway to citizenship.
“To me passing comprehensive reform is a very high priority,” Schumer said.
Recent efforts to comprehensively overhaul U.S. immigration law dating back to George W. Bush’s presidency failed, even at a time when Republicans sought to broaden their appeal to Hispanic voters. There hasn’t been a substantial revamp of American policy since 1986, when President Ronald Reagan signed a law that made 3 million undocumented workers eligible for legal status.
Ever since, immigration opponents in the Republican Party have demonized such proposals as “amnesty” for people who broke the law. In 2007, an immigration overhaul backed by Bush was blocked in the Senate and never considered in the House, despite Democrats controlling the chamber.
Six years later, under Obama, a plan negotiated by a bipartisan group of eight senators passed the Senate 68-32 — only to die in the House, where Republican leaders refused to consider it.
The most recent attempt at an overhaul collapsed in 2018 when each of four competing plans, including a broad bipartisan plan and one that reflected Trump’s priorities, were blocked from consideration on the Senate floor.
Sandweg said the bill would undoubtedly undergo changes in Congress, but praised its overall approach — especially the measures designed to address the causes of migration from Central America and Mexico.
“If history is any guide, the Congress will put its own imprint on this bill. But I think that the provisions that the Biden administration is staking out at the outset are incredibly reasonable and make a tremendous amount of sense,” he said.
During the 2020 campaign, Biden pledged he would reverse Trump’s immigration policies, which he said punished immigrants and ethnic minorities, while maintaining security at the border with Mexico.
Under Biden’s bill, people living in the U.S. without documentation as of Jan. 1 would have a five-year path to permanent legal status — known as a green card — if they pass background checks, pay taxes and meet other conditions. Then, they could apply for citizenship after another three years.
“We’re going to reduce the time from what is now, has been, currently 13 years to 8 years. We are going to expand protections for Dreamers and DACA recipients,” Vice President-elect Kamala Harris said in a recent interview withUnivision, referring to the Obama-era Deferred Action for Childhood Migrants Program.
“Dreamers” is the term advocates use for undocumented immigrants brought to the country as children. They and immigrants living in the U.S. under what’s called “temporary protected status” would enjoy an even faster route to citizenship, qualifying for green cards almost immediately if they meet requirements including holding a job or attending school.
But Biden’s decision not to pair easier paths to citizenship with enhanced border security and internal enforcement may complicate the legislation in the Senate, divided 50-50 between the parties.
Harris will cast the tie-breaking vote as vice president, giving Democrats control of the chamber. But any major legislation will require 60 votes to pass thanks to filibuster rules Democrats aren’t expected to eliminate.
And four Republican senators who backed a bipartisan immigration overhaul in 2018 are no longer in office, though three of them were replaced by Democrats.
Biden’s proposal also seeks to address the root cause of migration from Central America in order to reduce the number of people who come illegally to the U.S., calling for increased foreign aid to countries in the region. The plan also includes grants for English education and workforce development.
In another break with Trump, Biden’s proposal would expand refugee admissions and make it easier for migrants to secure the status by opening processing centers abroad. The Trump administration capped the number of refugees the U.S. will admit this year at 15,000, a historic low.
And while the bill does not condition an expanded path to citizenship on increased border security, it would direct the Department of Homeland Security to come up with a plan to use technology to enhance monitoring along the border and at points of entry.
Immigrant-rights advocates are likely to be pleased with the measure, after faulting Obama both for being too cautious about advancing an overhaul and too heavy handed with deportations and internal enforcement.
Biden is also expected to issue executive actions on immigration early in his presidency, including lifting Trump’s travel ban for predominantly majority-Muslim nations.
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