WASHINGTON — President Joe Biden is throwing his support behind a sweeping bill to remake the U.S. immigration system ahead of its expected introduction on Thursday by Democrats.
The U.S. Citizenship Act of 2021, set to be introduced by Sen. Bob Menendez, D-N.J., and Rep. Linda Sánchez, D-Calif., will include an eight-year pathway to citizenship for people in the country unlawfully who arrived by Jan. 1 of this year. It would lift hurdles for workers to legally immigrate to the U.S., add resources for border screening and replace the word “alien” with “noncitizen” in law.
On a call with reporters Wednesday evening, Biden administration officials previewed the legislation and said it would reflect the proposal he sketched out on the first day of his presidency.
One official, revealing details on condition of anonymity, said young people eligible for the Dream Act who are on temporary protected status, as well as farm workers who can demonstrate work history, can skip the five-year provisional status and “go directly to a green card.”
But while the ideas have been praised by progressives and immigration advocates, the legislation faces long odds in Congress, where Democrats have paper-thin majorities and lack the minimum of 10 Republican votes to defeat a Senate filibuster.
Instead of rushing to the negotiating table, Republicans are gearing up to mount a campaign against the proposal, and it’s not clear the Biden administration has a strategy to get the bill to his desk.
Pro-immigration activists are wondering how much political capital Biden will spend on the issue.
“Just because this bill is being introduced doesn’t mean there is actually a plan to pass it,” said Evan Weber, the policy director of the progressive Sunrise Movement, one of several advocacy groups that the White House consulted with before the rollout. “So that’s one of the things we’re going to be looking for from the White House and Democratic leaders: What is the strategy?”
Biden administration officials wouldn’t entertain questions about whether the president might reconsider abolishing the Senate’s 60-vote threshold or seek to push the plan through the budget reconciliation process that can bypass a filibuster.
Download the NBC News app for breaking news and politics
“It’s just too early to speculate about it now,” said one Biden administration official. “We want to first defer to our sponsors of this bill about what’s possible and look to leadership on the Hill about how they want to move immigration.”
The official said they haven’t discussed whether to use the reconciliation process but that the goal is to “put something on the president’s desk on immigration.”
That’s easier said than done. Former President Donald Trump stirred up anti-immigration sentiments that linger, despite his defeat. The GOP is less inclined to cut a deal on the issue than in 2013, when many party elites believed it was necessary to survive demographic doom. That year, a bill passed the Democratic-led Senate but was never considered in the Republican-controlled House.
And it’s not clear how interested moderate Democrats like West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin and Arizona Sens. Kyrsten Sinema and Mark Kelly will be in fighting for a contentious immigration package.
The Biden-Democratic proposal is an opening negotiating bid that is considerably more progressive than the 2013 legislation. It includes a shorter path to citizenship than the 13 years required by the prior bill and lacks the extensive border security measures that won some GOP votes.
Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, a Republican who has been at the center of previous bipartisan immigration bill, said he has doubts a broader deal is possible, but kept open the possibility of a small one that includes legalizing so-called Dreamers in exchange for more border security.
“The more people you legalize, the more things will be required to be given, so we’ll see. It starts a conversation,” he told NBC News. “You just can’t legalize one group without addressing the underlying broken immigration system. You just incentivize more. So, a smaller deal may be possible.”