Senator Bob Menendez (D-NJ) speaks during a press conference on June 27, 2018 about the Senate Democrats’ legislative proposal to address the root causes of the Central American migrant crisis. | Bill Clark / CQ appeal
Democrats are pushing for a comprehensive approach to immigration reform – for now.
Democrats in Congress tabled a comprehensive immigration reform bill on Thursday that addresses the priorities President Joe Biden set on his first day in office, including a path to citizenship for the estimated 10.5 million undocumented immigrants who live in the USA.
If passed, the long-awaited bill known as the US Citizenship Act of 2021 would represent the most comprehensive reform of the US immigration system since 1986 – and a reproof of former President Donald Trump’s nativist agenda.
However, the legislation, which is some sort of mission statement for the Democratic Party for Immigration, is unlikely to attract the 10 Republican votes necessary to run the Senate – unless the Democrats eliminate or change the filibuster to this would allow you to pass the bill without a single Republican vote.
At the heart of the bill is an eight-year path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants who entered the United States before January 1, 2021. It also includes provisions that address the underlying causes of migration, increase the number of visas and green cards available, invest in technology and infrastructure in border ports of entry, remove asylum barriers and strengthen the protection of migrant workers.
Noticeably, the bill lacks provisions that would encourage the kind of border security and internal enforcement measures that Republicans have long been looking for. For example, previous Republican proposals would have topped up funding to build the border wall, made it a crime to be present in the U.S. without a permit, and put children in indefinite detention with their parents while facing deportation proceedings.
Some Republicans have already warned that the bill would “revert to radical left-wing policies that incentivize illegal immigration and encourage an endless flood of foreigners to the United States”.
So far, however, Democrats have been reluctant to say they are ready to negotiate with Republicans to improve border security, beyond modernizing ports of entry or restricting the law’s legalization provisions.
Senator Bob Menendez, the law’s leading co-sponsor in the Senate, said in a press conference Thursday that the reason major immigration reforms have failed time and again over the past two decades is that the Democrats “are capitulating too quickly have, to stand on the sidelines, voices that have refused to accept the humanity and contributions of immigrants to our country and reject everything … as an amnesty. “
“We know that going forward will require negotiation with others. But we won’t make any concessions, ”said Menendez. “We will never win an argument that we do not have the courage to take.”
Californian MP Linda Sánchez, who presented an accompanying draft in the House on Thursday, also warned during the appeal that “cynicism can defeat us before we even try”.
Though proponents have expressed their openness to starting with smaller bills that could more easily take hold – such as those that legalize DREAMers who came to the US as children, as well as farm workers and other key workers – the Democrats are betting currently undergoing major reforms. Speaking to reporters on Wednesday, a senior civil servant did not rule out the possibility that Democrats could also legislate incrementally, but said that laying down the entire immigration system was imperative.
Practical considerations about the prospect of the law, however, have continued to plague proponents, who are merely trying to get aid to as many people as possible as soon as possible after four years of besieged communities.
“Even when I read and dissect this bill, the only question on my mind is HOW? Not just what. What’s the strategy? Erika Andiola, chief advocacy officer of immigration group RAICES, tweeted. “How do the Democrats plan to keep their promises to the immigrant community? As I can assure you, Trump’s party will do no good for us.”
The law would implement legal immigration reforms
At the heart of the bill is a provision that would allow undocumented immigrants to obtain legal status and eventually citizenship.
The process would take at least eight years. To qualify, immigrants would need to be physically present in the U.S. on or before January 1, 2021, unless they were granted a waiver on humanitarian grounds.
Initially, immigrants could get work permits and travel abroad with the peace of mind that they would be allowed to re-enter the US. After five years, if they pass background checks and pay taxes, they could apply for a green card. However, immigrants who fall under the Deferred Action on Arrival of Children Program and Temporary Protection status, as well as farm workers, can apply for green cards immediately.
After holding their green card for three years and passing additional background checks, they were able to apply for US citizenship.
The impact of such laws cannot be overestimated: they could potentially bring millions of people out of the shadows.
“For everyone, the broken immigration system stands in the way of being recognized for who they already are: important members of our communities,” said Maria Praeli, manager for government relations at immigrant advocacy group FWD.us, in a press conference.
In addition to other reforms of the legal immigration system, the bill contains a provision in particular to prevent presidents from issuing categorical immigration bans. It would also remove barriers to family-based immigration, including lengthy visa backlogs and employment-related green cards that were relatively inaccessible to workers in low-wage industries.
It would lift the Clinton-era restrictions that prevent people who have been in the US for more than six months without a permit from re-entering the country for a period of three to ten years. Many of these immigrants would otherwise be eligible to apply for legal status, often through a U.S. citizen or a green card spouse.
It would also strengthen protection for migrant workers by ensuring that victims of serious labor violations are given visas, those exposed to retaliation at work are protected from deportation, and a commission is set up to improve the employment review process.
In addition to making major changes to the legal immigration system, the bill would also introduce rhetorical changes and replace the word “foreigner” with “non-citizens” in federal immigration laws.
The bill seeks to address the underlying causes of migration
The bill aims to realize Biden’s vision of a regional approach to migration that takes into account the factors that cause Central American migrants to flee their home countries.
As Vice President, Biden worked with the governments of El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras – the countries of the northern triangle of Central America – to develop a $ 750 million program to improve economic development and curb violence and corruption in the region. However, the Trump administration stopped efforts in March 2019.
The new bill builds on this concept and provides $ 4 billion over four years to address these push factors and motivate the governments of the Northern Triangle to improve living conditions.
It would also set up new processing centers across the region to register skilled migrants as refugees and relocate them to the US. And it would reunite separated families by reintroducing the Central American Minor Program – which allows children to join their relatives in the US – and creating a new probation program for those whose family members in the US have sponsored them for visas.
The law is also designed to improve the ability of Central American countries to process and protect asylum seekers and refugees through working with the United Nations and other non-governmental organizations.
The proposal appears to be fundamentally different from the agreements that the Trump administration made with the Northern Triangle countries that allowed the US to return asylum seekers to those countries for protection – agreements that Biden has promised to end. The bill does not impose any obligation on asylum seekers to seek protection outside of the United States, but rather seeks to ensure that migrants have due process and information about their rights, that they are properly screened and that they are given documentation to allow them to move freely move and access social services.
The bill could increase funding for enforcement of immigration rules with a focus on technology
The bill would allow an unspecified increase in funding for enforcement of immigration laws. Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas would have to assess the exact dollar amount required, but this could prove controversial as many immigrant advocates over the past four years have urged lawmakers to shut down immigration agencies whose budgets have been abolished or at least relieved under Trump bloated.
These funds would be used to improve screening technology, training of officials, infrastructure in the ports of entry and border security between ports of entry in order to favor alternatives to a border wall.
The bill would also put in place mechanisms to combat misconduct within the ranks of DHS, add staff to the DHS Bureau of Professional Responsibility investigating such cases, and require the agency to develop a policy on the use of force. This would be a critical first step in the reform of the agency, which was politicized under Trump and at times served as the mouthpiece of his immigration and “law and order” agenda.
It would also increase the penalties for criminal gangs and drug traffickers.