Democrats are introducing an extensive immigration bill Thursday that has the backing of the White House and the potential to overhaul decades of existing policy while creating an“earned roadmap” to citizenship formillions of people who are illegally residing in the United States.
Sen. Robert Menendez of New Jersey and Rep. Linda Sanchez of California unveiled the sweeping piece of legislation Thursday as the Biden administration grapples with a mounting crisis on the southern border as thousands of migrants are turned away or released into the U.S. each day.
The bill was first announced hours after President Biden’s inauguration. Its debut in Congress will begin a set of challenges in getting through a gridlocked Congress, where Democrats will need 10 Republicans in the Senate to back the bill and every party member in the House to support it. Menendez said his colleagues will not know if the bill can pass the Senate until they try and vowed against making concessions “out of the gate.”
Individual Democratic lawmakers have already introduced piecemeal versions of the bill if pushing through the main package proves too difficult. Administration officials told reporters in a call Wednesday night that Biden is open to negotiating on the details and breaking it down into smaller bills.
The U.S. Citizenship Act of 2021 would create a new system to manage and secure the border, keep immigrant families and U.S. communities safe, and address root causes that prompt irregular migration surges in the Western Hemisphere so that fewer people would attempt to seek asylum in the U.S.
“It’s our vision of what immigration reform should look like,” Menendez said in a virtual press briefing Thursday morning. “It will modernize our system, offer a path to citizenship for hardworking people in our communities, reunite families, increase opportunities for legal immigration, and ensure America remains a powerhouse for innovation and. a beacon of hope to refugees around the world.”
In a call with reporters, Sanchez said the bill introduction was “intensely personal” for her as the daughter of immigrant parents who came from Mexico.
“They worked hard, and they sacrificed every day to provide for me and my brothers and sisters,” said Sanchez, the former Congressional Hispanic Caucus chairwoman. “They put it all on the line just to build a better life for their family, and their story is like the story of so many others. That is why I’ve dedicated my career to building an immigration system that lets people live without fear, a system that gives anyone willing to work hard and contribute to our nation.”
Citizenship and labor standards
Illegal immigrants may apply for temporary legal status, which allows them the ability to be present and work in the U.S., then apply for a green card after five years. Applicants must undergo a background and criminal check and have paid taxes in order to gain a green card, which is known as permanent legal residency. Immigrants within legal programs that protect them from deportation, including the 30-year-old Temporary Protected Status program and the Obama administration’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, will immediately be able to apply for a green card.
“It’s time to bring all 11 million undocumented out of the shadows,” said Menendez.
After a three-year period, green card holders who pass new background checks and pass the U.S. civics and English language tests may apply for citizenship. Only people who have been present in the U.S. before Jan. 1, 2021, may apply — a measure that prevents noncitizens from surging to the border because they will not be eligible. Senators, including Lindsey Graham, a South Carolina Repblican, and Majority Whip Dick Durbin, an Illinois Democrat, have each introduced bills that give a pathway to citizenship for people who were brought to the U.S. as children.
The word “alien,” used in U.S. laws to describe someone who is not a U.S. citizen, will be changed in all laws to “noncitizen.” Alien is a word that immigration restrictionists often use, compared to more liberal terms, such as undocumented or unauthorized immigrants. Rep. Joaquin Castro, a Texas Democrat, put forth a nearly identical bill last month.
The Menendez-Sanchez bill requires that the DHS and the Labor Department establish a commission to study and recommend how to get employers to verify that workers are legally allowed to work in the U.S. It does not indicate if it will back E-Verify, a federal process through which companies can check job applicants’ information against a federal system to see if they are hireable. Application backlogs for employment-based visas will be cleared, unused visas will be added back to the pile of available visas, and per-country caps will be eliminated.
“The U.S. citizenship act will help grow our economy. Fixing our broken immigration system will increase worker productivity, create more jobs, improve the wages of all workers and reduce our deficit,” said Sanchez. “And if you don’t believe me, just ask any economist.”
Future presidents would be banned from implementing religion-based bans on immigration, while new funding will be made available to state and local governments and private organizations to help refugees and immigrants integrate into the U.S.
Throughout the Trump administration, Congress made approximately $1.375 billion available each year for border wall construction, which included technology and roads. The new bill gives more funding to the Department of Homeland Security to acquire technology to inspect cargo, passengers, and vehicles coming through air, land, and sea ports of entry nationwide. The DHS secretary will develop and implement a plan to secure the southern border between official crossing points, where in fiscal year 2019, more than 1 million people illegally crossed from Mexico and were arrested by Border Patrol.
Staffing for DHS’s Office of Professional Responsibility, which handles internal affairs, will increase, and a Border Community Stakeholder Advisory Committee will be stood up to investigate problems among its 80,000 federal law enforcement personnel who work for immigration and border agencies.
It will receive funding to create standards for detaining and caring for people in the custody of DHS and the Department of Health and Human Services’s Office of Refugee Resettlement, including how children, families, and adults are treated. The bill approves changes in funding levels. Presently, HHS takes unaccompanied children into its care after they have been encountered on the border by Border Patrol. Adults and families are transferred to fellow DHS agency Immigration and Customs Enforcement, though families cannot be held in detention for more than 20 days due to the Flores settlement agreement that prevents the prolonged detention of children.
Central American migration
The government will have more authority to investigate and collect intelligence, as outlined under the Foreign Narcotics Kingpin Designation Act, so that more sanctions can be issued against trafficking and smuggling organizations. The FBI, the Drug Enforcement Agency, and the DHS will coordinate with the State Department to expand transnational anti-gang task forces throughout Central America.
Four billion dollars will be made available across four years to fund an interagency plan to address underlying causes for migration in Central America’s Northern Triangle countries, including El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras. Foreign aid to the three countries is meant to reduce corruption, violence, and poverty, all reasons that migrants flee the region for the U.S. and Mexico. The plan creates ways for asylum seekers to request help at Designated Processing Centers in the region to prevent people from traveling thousands of miles to the U.S. southern border and overwhelming border systems.
Previously, illegal immigrants released from detention facilities at the border and into the interior of the country were not eligible to apply for asylum after the fact once a year had passed. That one-year bar will be walked back. The government will cover the costs of legal counsel for immigrant children, people deemed to be vulnerable, and others — immigrants currently do not receive government lawyers as they go through immigration proceedings. The bill states that it will “improve the immigration courts” and expand family case management programs and reduce immigration court backlogs, which top 1 million.