What’s the story?
- Congressional Democrats unveiled an immigration reform package on Thursday that has the backing of President Joe Biden. The bicameral bill, known as the U.S. Citizenship Act of 2021, was introduced by Rep. Linda Sanchez (D-CA) and Sen. Bob Menendez (D-NJ).
- Menendez said that with the bill’s introduction, “We have an historic opportunity to finally enact bold immigration reform that leaves no one behind, addresses root causes of migration, and safeguards our country’s national security.”
- While the rollout featured optimism from Democrats about the prospects for the enactment of the package, it’s unlikely to get the 10 Republican votes needed to advance in the Senate in its current form because it lacks border security provisions that were included in the last comprehensive immigration reform package to receive bipartisan support.
- Additionally, House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) took issue with Democrats’ prioritization of immigration reform by tweeting, “Democrats have a plan to open America’s borders but not America’s schools. Tells you everything you need to know.”
- Some Democrats have said they may advance the package in a piecemeal fashion or potentially through the budget reconciliation process with a simple majority if the provisions comply with parliamentary rules.
What’s in the bill?
- Pathway to Citizenship: The bill would provide a path to citizenship for all of the roughly 11 million unauthorized immigrants in the country. So-called “Dreamers”, holders of Temporary Protected Status (TPS), and certain farmworkers would have an expedited three-year path to citizenship, while all other unauthorized immigrants who pass background checks and pay taxes would have an eight-year path to citizenship without deportation.
- Family-Based Immigration Reforms: The bill would increase per-country caps for family visas and allow the recapturing of visas from prior years to clear backlogs of spouses and children of green card holders. It would also increase protections for orphans, widows, and children while eliminating provisions that discriminate against LGBTQ+ families.
- Employment-Based Immigration Reforms: The bill would eliminate per-country caps for work visas, expand access to green cards for workers in lower-wage industries, and give dependents of H-1B visa holders work authorization.
- Employment Verification: The bill would establish a commission involving labor, employer, and civil rights groups that would suggest improvements to the process of verifying a worker’s legal status.
- Asylum Reforms: The bill would eliminate the one-year deadline for filing asylum claims and increase the cap on U visas, which are provided to victims of criminal activity, from 10,000 to 30,000.
- Border Security: The bill includes funding for border technology to detect drug trafficking and increases penalties for employers who hire unauthorized immigrants. However, it doesn’t include provisions for other aspects of border security, such as funding for barriers and enforcement personnel, or make employer participation in E-Verify (a program to check workers’ legal status) mandatory.
- Other Provisions: The bill would change references in federal immigration law that mention “aliens” to instead refer to “noncitizens.”
What happened with past immigration reform packages?
- The last significant overhaul of America’s immigration system occurred in 1986 when President Ronald Reagan signed the Simpson-Mazzoli Act into law.
- Its provisions were centered on a “three-legged stool” of deterring illegal immigration through border security and penalizing employers who hired unauthorized immigrants; granting temporary visas to seasonal agricultural workers who immigrated illegally; and legal status for unauthorized immigrants who had resided in the U.S. for more than four years, paid a fine and back taxes, and possessed basic knowledge of American civics and the English language.
- The three-legged stool template has been used in subsequent comprehensive immigration reform efforts.
- President George W. Bush backed a 2007 compromise immigration bill that was developed by then-Sens. John McCain (R-AZ), Ted Kennedy (D-MA), and Sen. Jon Kyl (R-AZ), but failed to gain enough support in the Senate to advance to a passage vote.
- In 2013, the "Gang of Eight" immigration bill was put together by a bipartisan group of Senators including McCain and Sens. Chuck Schumer (D-NY), Dick Durbin (D-IL), Lindsey Graham (R-SC), Bob Menendez (D-NJ), Marco Rubio (R-FL), Michael Bennet (D-CO), and Jeff Flake (R-AZ). While the bill passed on a 68-32 vote in June 2013, House Republicans refused to take up the Senate’s bill because it didn’t prioritize border security.
- In February 2018, the Senate voted on three proposals that would’ve codified DACA to varying degrees in addition to enacting other immigration reforms, each of which failed to reach the 60-vote threshold needed to invoke cloture. A bipartisan amendment offered by Sens. Chris Coons (D-DE) & John McCain (R-AZ) failed 52-47; another bipartisan proposal offered by Sens. Chuck Schumer (D-NY), Mike Rounds (R-SD), and Angus King (I-ME) failed 54-45; and the Trump administration’s proposal offered by Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-IA) failed 40-59.
- In June 2018, the House failed to pass Rep. Bob Goodlatte’s (R-VA) Securing America’s Future Act on a 193-231 vote, and the Border Security and Immigration Reform Act on a 121-301 vote.
- In January 2019, the Senate voted on an amendment known as the End the Shutdown and Secure the Border Act which failed on a 51-47 vote.
- In June 2019, the Democrat-controlled House passed the American Dream and Promise Act in a 237-187 vote that was mostly along party-lines. The bill stalled in the Senate because it lacked 60 votes and President Donald Trump threatened to veto the bill if it reached his desk.
— Eric Revell
(Photo Credit: The White House via Flickr / Public Domain)
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