Future for Immigrants and Refugees under Biden: The US Citizenship Act of 2021
On President Biden’s very first day in office, he passed 17 executive orders; six of which involved immigration and notably reversed the orders of former President Trump. President Biden has been adamant from the start of his campaign to undo nearly all immigration policy of the Trump-era. Executive Order 11 rescinded the Muslim Travel Ban, in an utmost direct opposition to Trump’s policy, declaring the ban “morally wrong.” On February 18, 2020, his new orders generated legislation, and in turn, proposed a new future for immigrants and refugees in the United States.
On February 18, 2021, Democratic House and Senate members formally revealed a sizable immigration bill, pushing President Biden’s executive orders into comprehensive action. Representative Linda Sánchez (D-CA) and Senator Robert Menendez (D-NJ) unveiled The US Citizenship Act of 2021, which boldly brings forth a path to citizenship for approximately 11 million people.
The proposed plan includes an eight-year path for undocumented immigrants and an expedited three-year path for agriculture workers, DACA recipients, and Dreamers that pass background checks and pay taxes. Through the pathway, those who have come to the US as children, known as Dreamers, would find the relief they have been waiting for all their lives. The act would thus absolve the possibility of deportation for millions.
The bill was introduced to the House on February 18 by Representative Sánchez as a sponsor and was introduced in the Senate the following week by Senator Menendez as chief sponsor. The sponsors discussed the bills in a press conference held via Zoom.
Representative Sánchez commented on the potential for drastic change, stating “Today, we are turning a page. We are writing the next chapter in our shared story.”
She then went on to highlight her personal attachment to immigration reform, growing up as the “daughter of immigrant parents from Mexico,” raised by parents who “didn’t know that they would someday send not just one, but two daughters to the United States Congress; but they put it all on the line just to build a better life for their family.”
As Representative Sánchez spoke, she was met with gleaming smiles from her Democratic counterparts on the squares of the screen. Continuing with her commitment to reform, she further signified, “Only in America can we see the son and the daughter of immigrant parents join together in the United States Capitol to announce a bold vision to bring our outdated, broken down immigration system in line with the values that make this country great. These are the very same values that brought our parents here.”
Emphasizing the urgency of passing the bill, Senator Menendez remarked “We have an economic and moral imperative to pass big, bold, and inclusive immigration reform. Reform that leaves no one behind.”
In addition to a pathway to citizenship, The US Citizenship Act of 2021 produces extensive immigration reform. The bill also seeks to remove the current per country quota for employment green cards, particularly beneficial for Indian IT professionals, many of whom have earned residency but cannot receive a green card due to the quota.
Other initiatives proposed in the bill include legally replacing the word “alien” with “non-citizen,” advancing technology at the southern border, and growing Central America transnational anti-drug forces. With such sweeping reform, arguably the most sweeping since the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986, it is expected that there will be great obstacles in ratification. Since 1986, there has been no immigration act of such volume that has passed, as efforts led by “the Gang of Eight” failed to pass the House in 2013.
In face of the COVID-19 pandemic, Representative Bill Johnson (I-OH) raised concern with the timing of the bill. On Thursday, he tweeted “No! This is not the right time and certainly not the right set of policies. Let’s focus on those Americans who are struggling right now.”
In an interview with Fox News, Representative Nancy Mace (R-SC) related to concern of security at the southern border, quoted, "The left wants to fund this border security around the Capitol, but they don't want to fund a border wall at our southern border. I don't understand it at all."
Gaining Republican support for the bill will be essential, given that the bill requires 60 votes in the Senate to pass. Not only will all 50 Democratic senators need to vote in favor, but ten Republican senators will need to be swayed. To raise the chances to at least relative victory, some Congresspeople have suggested dividing out the bill. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) hinted that the strategy may be used in Congress, saying at a press conference, “I salute the president for putting forth the legislation that he did. There are others who want to do piecemeal, and that may be a good approach too. That’s up to the Congress to decide.”
Piecemealing the legislation will likely tamper with how comprehensive the bill is in reforming immigration. At the Capitol, the bill might not no longer be the most sweeping immigration reform since 1986. In the coming weeks, The US Citizenship Act of 2021 will find where it fits in history: as a pivotal point of change in immigration policy, or as just another bold initiative that failed to garner enough bipartisan support to make a difference.