The nation awoke with a new President of the United States, and although President Joe Biden has been in office for less than one day, his administration is already planning sweeping immigration reforms and policy changes that will unfold throughout the coming months.
This is just the start of President Biden’s plan to reverse the numerous damaging policies and executive orders passed by the Trump administration during the past four years.
This morning, the White House issued a press release outlining President Biden’s commitment to modernize the U.S. immigration system by way of a legislative bill that will be introduced before Congress in a matter of days.
The new bill, the U.S. Citizenship Act of 2021, proposes to overhaul the current immigration system to more effectively manage and secure our country’s border.
According to the Biden administration, the purpose of the bill is to “restore humanity and American values to our immigration system….” providing “hardworking people who enrich our communities every day and who have lived here for years, in some cases for decades, an opportunity to earn citizenship.”
The bill will prioritize family reunification, address root causes of mass migration from Central America, and among other things ensure that the United States remains a refuge for those fleeing persecution.
Most importantly is the bill’s commitment to create a path to citizenship for eligible undocumented immigrants, including Dreamers and essential workers who have been on the frontline of the COVID-19 pandemic.
What are some of the bill’s key proposals?
Pathway to Citizenship and Strengthening Labor Protections
One of the key highlights of the bill is its proposal to create an “earned roadmap” to citizenship for undocumented individuals who were physically present in the United States on or before January 1, 2021.
The bill would allow undocumented individuals to apply for temporary legal status (likely deferred action), with the ability to apply for green cards after five years, provided they can pass criminal and national security background checks and pay their taxes.
Dreamers, TPS holders, and immigrant farmworkers who meet specific requirements would be eligible for green cards immediately under the legislation.
After three years, all green card holders who pass additional background checks and demonstrate knowledge of English and U.S. civics would be eligible to apply for citizenship.
The bill would also introduce an interesting waiver provision granting the Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) the authority to waive the physical presence requirement for those deported on or after January 20, 2017 who were physically present in the United States for at least three years prior to removal for family unity and other humanitarian purposes.
The bill would also officially recognize America as a nation of immigrants and call for changing the word “alien” to “noncitizen” in our immigration laws.
In terms of family reunification, the bill carves out provisions prioritizing family reunification with a series of reforms that modernize and reduce waiting periods for the family-based visa quota immigration system. Among the bill’s proposals it promises to clear backlogs, recapture unused visa numbers, eliminate lengthy visa waiting times, and increase per-country visa caps.
Additionally, it would eliminate the “3 and 10-year bars,” and other similar types of provisions that keep families apart.
As it relates to inclusion and diversity, the bill would include protection for “permanent [family] partnerships” and eliminate discrimination facing LGBTQ+ families.
It would also provide protections for orphans, widows, children, and Filipino veterans who fought alongside the United States in World War II.
Perhaps most importantly the bill would allow 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.
Diversity Visa Program Quota Increases
The bill would incorporate the NO BAN Act that prohibits discrimination based on religion and limits presidential authority to issue future bans. The bill would also increase the availability of Diversity Visas to 80,000 from 55,000 per fiscal year.
Funding for Local Government
In terms of funding for immigrant programs, the bill proposes additional funding for state and local governments, private organizations, educational institutions, community-based organizations, and not-for-profit organizations to support the administration’s mission to expand programs that promote integration and inclusion, such as increasing programs for English-language instruction, and providing assistance to individuals seeking to become citizens.
With respect to employment-based visas, the bill would further modernize the employment-based visa quota system by eliminating visa backlogs, recapturing unused visas, reducing lengthy wait times, and eliminating per-country visa caps.
The Biden administration proposes making it easier for graduates of U.S. universities with advanced STEM degrees to remain in the United States and contribute to the American workforce, improving access to green cards for workers in lower wage sectors, and eliminating unnecessary hurdles to obtain employment-based green cards.
Finally, the bill includes a much anticipated provision that provides dependents of H-1B visa holders work authorization and prevents children from “aging out” of the system.
Interestingly, the bill also proposes the creation of a pilot program that would stimulate regional economic development, give DHS authority to adjust green cards based on macroeconomic conditions, and incentivize higher wages for non-immigrant, high-skilled visas to prevent unfair competition with American workers.
Protections from Exploitation: U visa protection for serious labor violations
The Biden administration has introduced protections that would prevent workers from being exploited and improve the overall employment verification process.
Among its compliance standards, the bill proposes the creation of a commission under the auspices of DHS and the DOL that would require labor, employer, and civil rights organizations to make recommendations to improve the employment verification process.
Workers who suffer serious labor violations and cooperate with worker protection agencies will be granted greater access to U visa relief under the bill. The bill would further shield foreign workers from deportation in order to allow labor agencies to interview workers to prosecute employers for labor violation laws. This would discourage employers from using workplace retaliation and deportation as a threat to continue the exploitation of foreign workers.
The bill also protects the rights of migrant and seasonal workers and increases penalties for employers who violate labor laws.
Protections for Asylum/U/T/VAWA Special Immigrants
With respect to asylum seekers the bill eliminates the one-year deadline for filing asylum claims and provides funding to reduce asylum application backlogs.
It also increases protections for U visa, T visa, and VAWA applicants, including by raising the cap on U visas from 10,000 to 30,000. The bill also expands protections for foreign nationals assisting U.S. troops.
With respect to border controls, the bill would provide additional funding for immigration enforcement to support the availability of border resources as it relates to technology and infrastructure.
Additional funding would be authorized by Congress to modernize our border security and allow DHS to develop and implement a plan to deploy technology to expedite screening and enhance our ability to identify narcotics and other contraband at every land, air, and seaport of entry.
The bill supports the implementation of high-throughput scanning technologies to ensure that all commercial and passenger vehicles and freight rail traffic entering the United States at land ports of entry and rail-border crossings along the border undergo pre-primary scanning.
Additional funding has also been proposed to improve infrastructure at ports of entry to enhance the ability to process asylum seekers and detect, interdict, disrupt and prevent narcotics from entering the United States.
The bill authorizes the DHS Secretary to develop and implement a strategy to manage and secure the southern border between ports of entry that focuses on flexible solutions and technologies that expand the ability to detect illicit activity, evaluate the effectiveness of border security operations, and be easily relocated and broken out by the Border Patrol sector.
Additional Funding to Secure the Border
The bill would authorize additional funding for training and continuing education to promote agent and border officer safety and professionalism.
It proposes the creation of a Border Community Stakeholder Advisory Committee, that would increase resources at the border with an increased number of special agents at the DHS Office of Professional Responsibility. Such agents are tasked with investigating criminal and administrative misconduct. The Committee would be required to abide by and remain compliant with department-wide policies governing the use of force.
The bill further directs the Government Accountability Office (GAO) to study the impact of DHS’s authority to waive environmental and state and federal laws, to expedite the construction of barriers and roads near U.S. borders, and provide for additional rescue beacons to prevent needless deaths along the border.
Additional funding would also be provided to DHS, in coordination with the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) and nongovernmental experts, to develop guidelines and protocols for standards of care for individuals, families, and children in CBP custody.
While the bill creates favorable provisions for undocumented immigrants, family and employment-based immigrants, it also aims to get tough on criminal organizations.
The bill includes a provision which seeks to expand the government’s ability to prosecute individuals involved in smuggling and trafficking networks – primarily those responsible for the exploitation of migrants.
It also expands investigations, intelligence collection and analysis pursuant to the Foreign Narcotics Kingpin Designation Act to increase sanctions against foreign narcotics traffickers, their organizations and networks.
It would further allow the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) and DHS, in coordination with the Secretary of State, to improve and expand transnational anti-gang task forces in Central America.
Addressing Causes of Mass Migration from Central America
The bill aims to discover the underlying causes of mass migration from Central America and fund the President’s $4 billion four-year interagency initiative, that will increase financial assistance to El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras to reduce the endemic corruption, violence, and poverty plaguing the region.
It would also introduce safer and more effective channels for Central Americans to seek protections, including Designated Processing Centers which will be newly established throughout Central America, for the purpose of registering and processing displaced persons for refugee resettlement and other lawful migration avenues – either to the United States or other partner countries.
The bill calls for the Central American Minors program to be reinstated to reunite children with U.S. relatives and the establishment of the Central American Family Reunification Parole Program to more quickly unite families with approved family sponsorship petitions.
Improving Immigration Court Backlogs
The bill aims to expand family case management programs, reduce immigration court backlogs, expand training for immigration judges, and improve technology for immigration courts to help create a more effective system of justice.
It would further restore fairness to the system by providing judges and adjudicators with discretion to review cases and grant relief to deserving individuals.
Funding would be authorized for legal orientation programs and counsel for children, vulnerable individuals, and others when necessary to ensure the fair and efficient resolution of their claims.
The bill also introduces a provision that would provide funding for school districts educating unaccompanied children, while clarifying sponsor responsibilities for such children.
We applaud the Biden administration’s swift efforts to create a pathway to citizenship for the estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants in the United States.
We are certain that this will be the first of many pieces of legislation and executive actions passed by the Biden administration.
Of course, the bill must be presented to both the House and the Senate and receive majority approval from both houses of Congress to become law. We expect that the final bill will include further amendments and revisions from the Republican party. However, the bill is likely to pass albeit in a revised form given that the Democratic party currently controls the House and the Senate.
To remain updated on this and many other immigration topics please continue to review our blog and social media channels where we will be reporting on the latest developments in immigration law under the Biden administration.
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