WASHINGTON — President Joe Biden’s allies on Capitol Hill on Thursday unveiled a far-reaching overhaul of the nation’s immigration system, describing it as a humane response to four years of President Donald Trump’s assault on immigrants.
The U.S. Citizenship Act of 2021, formally introduced by a dozen Democratic lawmakers in the House and Senate, amounts to a lengthy wish list for pro-immigration activists and a down payment on Biden’s campaign promise to provide a path to citizenship for 11 million immigrants without legal status.
It would allow virtually all these immigrants to eventually apply for citizenship; increase legal immigration; add measures to secure ports of entry and speed processing of asylum-seekers; and invest $4 billion in the economies of Central American countries to reduce migration.
“We’re here today because last November 80 million Americans voted against Donald Trump and against everything he stood for,” Sen. Bob Menendez, D-N.J., said at a virtual news conference. “They voted to restore common sense, compassion and competence in our government, and part of that mandate is fixing our immigration system, which is a cornerstone of Trump’s hateful horror show.”
The Biden administration also acted Thursday to curtail the number of arrests and deportations of immigrants living in the U.S. without legal permission, issuing temporary guidance requiring immigration agents to seek approval before trying to deport individuals who do not present national security threats, have felony convictions or have recently tried to cross the border illegally.
The memo, issued by the acting director of Immigration and Customs Enforcement, says that those immigrants who do not meet those three criteria are not considered priorities for deportation. Alejandro Mayorkas, the Homeland Security secretary, said he would issue permanent guidance about deportation priorities within 90 days.
“Today’s interim operating guidance requires ICE personnel to review cases on an individualized basis, in accordance with the law, and encourages coordination between in-the-field personnel and agency leadership,” officials said in the statement released by ICE.
The legislation announced by Democrats on Thursday drew the ire of some Republicans, who said it did not invest enough money in securing the border and would encourage illegal immigration and more foreign workers when Americans are already struggling.
“This blatantly partisan proposal rewards those who broke the law, floods the labor market at a time when millions of Americans are out of work, fails to secure the border, and incentivizes further illegal immigration,” said Rep. Jim Jordan of Ohio, the senior Republican on the House Judiciary Committee.
The legislation appears to start with broad backing from Democratic groups that have fought over provisions of previous comprehensive immigration measures, including union groups and pro-business Democrats.
Some pro-immigration advocacy organizations have already signaled that they believe lawmakers should pursue more limited measures aimed at granting citizenship to discrete groups of people without legal status, especially those who are broadly sympathetic. The groups argue that it is very unlikely that Biden will succeed in winning the Republican support he needs to pass the bill.
Menendez acknowledged that it would be difficult to persuade 10 Republican senators to join all 50 of the senators who caucus with Democrats to back a comprehensive bill; 60 votes are needed to overcome a filibuster that would almost be guaranteed.
But the senator rejected arguments that Congress should focus on smaller measures.
“We will never win an argument that we don’t have the courage to make,” Menendez said. “We will do the righteous thing and make our case for both inclusive and lasting immigration reform.”
Menendez and Rep. Linda Sánchez, D-Calif., the bill’s chief sponsors, were joined by 10 of their colleagues as they unveiled the immigration legislation in a virtual news conference Thursday.
The centerpiece of the legislation is an eight-year path to citizenship for most of the 11 million immigrants living in the United States without legal permission as of Jan. 1. After passing background checks and paying taxes, they would be allowed to live and work in the United States for five years. After that, they could apply for a green card, giving them permanent status in the United States and the opportunity to earn citizenship after three more years.
The bill also includes the most far-reaching changes in immigration law in more than three decades. It would sweep away restrictions on family-based immigration, making it easier for spouses and children to join family members already in the country. And it would expand worker visas to allow more foreigners to come to the United States for jobs.
Unlike previous efforts to overhaul immigration, the legislation does not include a large focus on increased border enforcement. Instead, the bill would add resources to process migrants legally at ports of entry and would invest $4 billion over four years in distressed economies in the hopes of preventing people from fleeing to the United States because of security and economic crises.
Sánchez said the previous administration had been “fixated on vanity projects like the wall,” which did not address the root causes of illegal immigration. She said Biden and Democrats welcomed input from Republicans, but she and her colleagues signaled they were not eager to add billions of dollars for more enforcement.
“We have a chance to be very thoughtful here,” she said, “and to really utilize better, more efficient tools at our disposal to make sure that we’re managing our border and doing it in a safe way but in a humane way as well.”
White House officials said Biden was eager to “restart conversations” with Democrats and Republicans about immigration after four years in which Trump undermined the nation’s system, curtailing legal immigration and shutting the border to asylum-seekers.
But administration officials ducked the question of what Biden would do if Republicans in the Senate refused to support the measure. A senior White House aide told reporters that it was too early to think about legislative alternatives.
Jen Psaki, the White House press secretary, said Biden was willing to negotiate as the legislation moved through Congress.
“He is all too familiar, or very familiar, with the fact that a bill proposed typically does not look like the final bill signed,” said Psaki, nodding to the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, or CHC. “But it is just being formally proposed today. We are eager to work with Democrats, Republicans, members of the CHC and others who have been working passionately on these issues for a long period of time.”