Congressional Democrats unveiled a comprehensive immigration bill Thursday, promising a pathway to citizenship for the 11 million undocumented immigrants residing in the United States. This is the first major step in the Biden administration’s push to enact significant immigration reform, but the bill is unlikely to attract any Republican support, and Democrats are already discussing alternate ways of enacting their agenda.
The bill, which was introduced by Senator Bob Menendez of New Jersey and Representative Linda Sánchez of California, outlines an eight-year path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants who arrived in the U.S. by January 1, 2021. Temporary Protected Status holders, DACA recipients, and immigrant farmworkers would be eligible for green cards immediately, with the opportunity to apply for citizenship after holding green cards for three years and passing additional background checks.
“First and foremost, this immigration reform legislation provides hardworking people and families who have lived here for years, in some cases for decades, an opportunity for them to earn their citizenship,” said Sánchez.
The U.S. Citizenship Act of 2021 was originally proposed by the Biden administration back in January. According to a fact sheet published by the White House, the legislation would also provide additional support for border screening and processing; replace the word “alien” with the word “noncitizen” in U.S. law; and increase assistance for El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras as a way to “address the underlying causes of migration.”
Though Democrats narrowly control the Senate, it is unlikely that the bill would attract the 10 Republican votes needed to proceed through the chamber. Some Democrats from border states have voiced concerns about putting forward a significant immigration proposal at a time when the party holds such a slim majority, especially if changed laws result in an increase of migrants heading to the border.
“The way we’re doing it right now is catastrophic and is a recipe for disaster in the middle of a pandemic,” Representative Vicente Gonzalez, a Texas Democrat, told Politico.
He added, “Our party should be concerned. If we go off the rails, it’s going to be bad for us … Biden is going to be dealing with a minority in Congress if he continues down some of these paths.”
The last major overhaul of the U.S. immigration system occurred during the Reagan administration, and a bipartisan Senate plan for comprehensive immigration reform stalled in the House during Obama’s presidency. That was followed by four years of the Trump administration’s draconian immigration policy, including a Muslim travel ban, limits placed on green cards and visas, and an intense focus on border security and building a border wall.
Many Democrats feel that with their party in control of the White House and both chambers of Congress for the first time in a decade, they finally have an opportunity to reshape the immigration system..
“The reason we have not gotten immigration reform over the finish line is not because of a lack of will,” said Menendez. “It is because time and time again, we have compromised too much and capitulated too quickly to fringe voices who have refused to accept the humanity and contributions of immigrants to our country and dismiss everything, no matter how significant it is in terms of the national security, as amnesty.”
Yet, even before the massive U.S. Citizenship Act was introduced, Democrats were talking about breaking it into smaller measures that have a better chance of passing both chambers of Congress.
During his town hall with CNN in Milwaukee on Tuesday, Biden indicated his openness to that idea, saying, “There’s things that I would deal by itself, but not at the expense of saying, ‘I’m never going to do the other.’”