WASHINGTON — On the same day he is inaugurated into office, Joe Biden will introduce immigration legislation that will include an eight-year pathway to citizenship for nearly 11 million immigrants living in the United States without legal status.
The legislation, first reported by the Washington Post, will also include expanding refugee admissions and an enforcement plan that includes deploying technology to patrol the border, a Biden transition official confirmed Tuesday.
Biden’s plan comes after four years of a hardline approach to immigration from President Donald Trump, which led to several controversial policies, including his effort to end the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program. The Supreme Court upheld that program in a ruling last year.
Democrats hailed Biden’s proposal Tuesday. Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer wrote on Twitter that he looks forward to getting comprehensive immigration reform signed into law.
“Comprehensive immigration reform with a path to citizenship is one of the most important things a Democratic Congress can do,” Schumer wrote in the Tweet.
Some immigration activists also were cautiously optimistic about the proposal.
“While the bill is welcome, it’s really just the beginning,” said Maria Praeli, government relations manager at FWD.us, an immigration advocacy group. “What Joe Biden now has to lead on is getting legalization through the finish line. He has to use his leadership, his bully pulpit, to do more than introduce an immigration reform that like captures the vision. So a good first step, not the end of the game.”
But Republicans were less eager to embrace the incoming president’s plan. Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., wrote in a tweet that Biden was “wasting no time trying to enact his radical immigration agenda,” decrying specifically the pathway to citizen
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Democrats control Congress, but the margins are slim
Despite Democrats holding a slim majority in both the House and Senate, the proposed legislation could be difficult to pass. Democrats in the Senate would need all 50 members to support the bill in order to force a tie with Republicans. Kamala Harris could then break that tie as vice president.
In the House, Democrats hold a 222-to-211 majority, so they can afford few defections from their party in order to pass legislation.
Under Biden’s proposal, immigrants without legal status living in the U.S. as of Jan. 1, 2021, would be put in a temporary legal status for five years, with a green card being granted if they meet requirements like passing a background check and paying taxes. They then could apply for citizenship three years later.
Some undocumented immigrants will see a quicker process in the pathway to citizenship. Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) recipients, also known as “Dreamers,” in addition to agricultural workers and those in the temporary protected status program could qualify for green cards immediately.
“It will be about creating a pathway for people to earn citizenship. We’re going to reduce the time from what is now has been currently 13 years to eight years. We are going to expand protections for Dreamers and DACA recipients,” Vice President-elect Kamala Harris said during an interview with Univision last week. “These are some of the things that we’re going to do on our immigration bill, and we believe it is a smarter and a more humane way of approaching immigration.”
In a memo released Saturday, Biden’s incoming chief of staff Ron Klain also noted that the Biden Administration will begin reuniting families separated at the border, where 628 parents who were separated from their children at the border are still missing as of December.
Path to passing legislation is not easy
For generations, comprehensive immigration reform has been at once the legislation with the most consensus and trickiest to pass. Ronald Reagan signed the bipartisan 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act, which granted amnesty to some 3 million undocumented immigrants living in the U.S.
But throughout the 1990s and ramping up in the early 2000s, commitments to more strictly secure the border were woven into any bill offering status relief for undocumented immigrants, said Doris Meissner, head of the U.S. Immigration Policy Program at the Migration Policy Institute. This led to deeper divides over legislation, as political parties grew further apart.
“Immigration legislation doesn’t pass without it being bi-partisan,” Meissner said. “Since the (political) center has cratered, immigration reform has been one of the victims.”
The last attempt at meaningful immigration legislation came in 2013 with the Border Security, Economic Opportunity, and Immigration Modernization Act, authored by the so-called “Gang of Eight,” a bipartisan group of U.S. senators – four Republicans and four Democrats. It passed with a strong majority in the Senate but then-Speaker of the House John Boehner, a Republican, never called the bill to the House floor, allowing it to expire.
Past immigration reform bills may have failed because there was too much emphasis on border security and other issues crammed into them, said Elissa Steglich, co-director of the Immigration Clinic at the University of Texas School of Law in Austin.
“The larger you make it, the more certain it is to fail,” Steglich said. “The (Biden) administration was right to limit it to pathway to status.”
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Rep. Mo Brooks, R-Ala., claimed in a tweet that the pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants “means more jobs lost and wages suppressed for tens of millions of American citizens.”
“How can Socialists credibly claim to represent lower income Americans when Socialist border security weakness hurts so many struggling American families?” Brooks said.
However, Rep. Norma Torres, D-Calif., said that some members “are eager to secure a path forward for Dreamers and are ready to work with the incoming Administration to finally make this a reality.”
Steglich pointed to past successful immigration bills – such as the Victims of Trafficking and Violence Protection Act of 2000, which offers protection for undocumented immigrants who have been victims of certain crimes – as examples that Congress can unite to pass meaningful bills. “There have been moments,” she said
One advantage of the new proposal: It’s coming early in a new Congress and new administration, with midterm elections still two years away, Meissner said.
“If it comes early, it has a chance,” she said. “The closer it gets to an election, it gets harder and harder to pass.”