Biden’s ‘U.S. Citizenship Act’ Makes Immigration Everybody’s Concern

Biden’s Day 1 immigration announcement was the opening salvo in what promises to be a long debate in this session of Congress over immigration reform. 

Biden's 'U.S. Citizenship Act' Makes Immigration Everybody's Concern
A protest to defend the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program (DACA) in Los Angeles, 2017. (Molly Adams / Flickr)

President Biden’s bold efforts to reset America’s immigration policies include not only a series of executive actions overturning Trump-era policies, but a new legislative proposal to dramatically overhaul the immigration system.

The U.S. Citizenship Act of 2021, announced on the president’s first day in office, has as its centerpiece a plan to provide a path to citizenship for the roughly 11 million individuals who do not have permanent lawful status in the U.S., including people who currently are protected under programs like Temporary Protected Status (TPS) or Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), as well a significant share of essential workers who have no form of legal status. It also includes provisions to improve visa processing, increase diversity, protect asylum seekers and trafficking victims, enhance labor protections and bolster the economy.

While the legislation has a name, it does not yet have bill language available to the public. As such, Biden’s announcement was the opening salvo in what promises to be a long debate in this session of Congress over immigration reform. 

The good news is that the president has given Congress a legislative vision for reform, demonstrating that his administration intends to be actively involved in the efforts to pass legislation. In the midst of a fast-paced agenda in which addressing the pandemic and climate change are top priorities, the time and attention given to immigration reform is notable for what it tells the country about immigration. Getting our immigration process right, the bill suggests, is something that benefits everyone—it is a national issue that deserves national attention.

The second bit of good news is that, for the first time in decades, the reforms proposed do not assume the need to further increase detentions and removals. Instead, the proposal focuses on eliminating current visa backlogs, increasing opportunities for temporary legal employment, strengthening worker protections and addressing the root causes of migration from Central America. 

Notably, it offers equal access to immigration benefits for LGBTQ immigrants, chipping away at the assumptions about family and commitment embedded in many of our immigration laws.

The bill would also reform treatment of people at the border. The bill gives communities at the border an important advisory role in the management of the southern border with Mexico. It supports modernization and expansion of ports of entry to create the space and resources needed to manage admissions of people and goods at ports of entry, and to provide for humane mechanisms for processing asylum seekers and others in need of humanitarian assistance. Unlike the 2013 immigration bill that passed the Senate, it does this without authorizing billions of dollars to militarize the Border Patrol.

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Finally, the bill proposes a much more vigorous set of efforts to protect rights, increase integration and promote naturalization. These provisions include providing legal counsel to all unaccompanied minors and other vulnerable immigrants, improving the quality of care in Customs and Border Patrol facilities, providing funds to states, local governments and community organizations to support integration and naturalization, and reducing backlogs in immigration court and asylum processing. 

Biden's 'U.S. Citizenship Act' Makes Immigration Everybody's Concern
Inauguration day protest against Donald Trump in Minneapolis, on Jan. 20, 2017. (Fibonacci Blue / Flickr)

All of these measures attempt to restore fair and equitable treatment to non-citizens no matter their status, and could move the country a little closer to treating everyone with dignity. In fact, the Biden bill would remove the anachronistic use of the term “alien” to describe immigrants with the more descriptive and neutral term, “noncitizen.”

Without actual text, it is hard to comment on how these proposals will actually play out—and that, of course, is where the bad news comes in. Anti-immigration hardliners like Senator Ted Cruz (R-Texas) are already mischaracterizing the bill as prioritizing immigrants over American workers, setting the stage for more ugly and divisive rhetoric to come. The legislation faces a difficult path to victory in a Senate where the Democrats hold the majority by a single vote. And the likelihood that it could become a lightning rod for white supremacists, extremists and other anti-immigration groups who still believe that America doesn’t need immigration should not be ignored.  

Fortunately, the vast majority of Americans don’t buy the deluded rhetoric of the immigration restrictionists. A recent Chicago Council on Foreign Affairs report shows that two-thirds of Americans support providing a pathway to citizenship for non-citizens. Support for immigration in general has also gone up during the Trump years. It seems that, after four years of Trump’s efforts to make racism and anti-immigrant sentiment American values, the country is ready to reject the venom.  

Perhaps no more indicative of the moment is the launch of the We Are Home campaign, a diverse coalition that is organized around seeking a path to citizenship for the 11 million non-citizens currently in the country without legal status. 

Lorella Praeli, one of the leaders of the coalition and co-president of Community Change/Community Change Action captured the sentiments of many: “We are demanding a path to citizenship and a transformation of the enforcement system so it no longer leads with detention and deportation. We are demanding a better future for our families, our neighbors, our children. We are demanding a future where we all can thrive, regardless of race, religion or birthplace. We are home. We’ve been home.”

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Mary Giovagnoli is the former executive director of Refugee Council USA.  She served as deputy assistant secretary for immigration policy in the Department of Homeland Security from 2015 to 2017.