President Joe Biden and top congressional Democrats formally unveiled a proposed bill on Thursday that, if passed into law, could lead to the most comprehensive immigration reform in decades.
The bill, entitled the U.S. Citizenship Act of 2021, “provides hardworking people … an opportunity to earn citizenship,” modernizes the immigration system and “prioritizes keeping families together (as well as) growing the economy,” according to a press release from the White House before the official text was released.
“Even if you’re not involved in politics at all, you’ve probably heard me say this a thousand times … that everyone is entitled to be treated with decency, with dignity,” Biden said at a town hall hosted by CNN in mid-February. “Everyone is entitled to that. And we don’t do that enough.”
Rep. Linda Sanchez (D-Calif) and Sen. Bob Menendez (D-NJ) are the sponsors of the bill in the U.S. House of Representatives and Senate, respectively.
“We have an economic and moral imperative to pass big, bold and inclusive immigration reform,” Menendez said at a press conference shortly after the text of the bill was announced.
U.S. Citizenship Act of 2021: Key details and analysis
Pathway to citizenship
The proposed bill would create a legal pathway to citizenship for millions of undocumented individuals currently living in the United States.
The bill would enable individuals to seek temporary legal status and then apply for a green card after five years, “if they pass criminal and national security background checks and pay their taxes.” Those individuals could then become eligible for citizenship after another three years.
DACA recipients, TPS holders and some farmworkers could apply immediately for a green card if the U.S. Citizenship Act of 2021 is signed into law in its current form.
Applicants must have been physically present in the United States on or before January 1, 2021 to be eligible for the program.
Family- and employment-based changes
The bill includes mechanisms to clear backlogs, recapture unused visas and eliminate lengthy wait times in both the family- and employment-based immigration systems. It also “allows immigrants with approved family-sponsorship petitions to join family in the United States on a temporary basis while they wait for green cards to become available.”
Additionally, the proposal “makes it easier for graduates of U.S. universities with advanced STEM degrees to stay in the United States; improves access to green cards for workers in lower-wage sectors; and eliminates other unnecessary hurdles for employment-based green cards.”
Other provisions in the bill include:
- Changing the word “alien” to “noncitizen” in U.S. immigration laws
- Prohibiting “discrimination based on religion and limit presidential authority to issue future bans” under a related NO BAN companion bill
- Supporting asylum seekers by eliminating “the one-year deadline for filing asylum claims” and providing funding to reduce application backlogs
- Raising the cap on U visas from 10,000 to 30,000
- Expanding protections for foreign nationals assisting U.S. troops
Next steps for proposed immigration bill
The bill must be passed by both the United States House of Representatives and the Senate before it can be signed into law by Biden.
Its future in both houses of the legislative branch is unclear. The bill does not have a single Republican sponsor. Several prominent Republicans have already publicly expressed concerns about certain provisions contained in the draft of the bill.
Democratic leaders, including Biden, have also indicated their willingness to move forward with immigration reform in a piecemeal fashion by breaking up the proposed comprehensive legislation into multiple, smaller bills, if more palatable to Congress.
“There’s things that I would deal by itself, but not at the expense of saying, ‘I’m never going to do the other,’” Biden said at the town hall hosted by CNN. “There is a reasonable path to citizenship.”
The speed at which the bill will move through the multistep legislative process is uncertain, but a reasonable expectation would be several months or longer, especially given the apparent lack of bipartisan consensus on key elements of the proposal.
The attorneys at Garfinkel Immigration Law Firm continue to monitor the situation closely and will alert clients as circumstances evolve.