Nearly one month after President Biden announced that his administration would take a red pen to his predecessor's immigration policies, Democratic leaders in Congress unveiled more than 350 pages of text detailing the changes. The broad strokes of the legislation, introduced Thursday as the U.S. Citizenship Act of 2021, are in keeping with expectations, though the bill does offer more detail about how the 11 million immigrants living in the U.S. without documentation might traverse a pathway to citizenship.
The legislation aims to address three different areas of immigration: immigration and documentation status, monitoring of the southern border, and the "root causes" that prompt people to immigrate. "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.), who sponsored the bill in the Senate, told reporters. "They voted to restore common sense, compassion, and competence in our government, and part of that mandate is fixing our immigration system."
Many of the proposed fixes move explicitly away from Trump administration policies, which criminalized migrants and migration rather than offering sanctuary or safety to those fleeing violence and persecution. The legislation would allow DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) recipients to receive a green card immediately, and farm and agricultural workers would receive the same benefit. For all other undocumented immigrants, the process is a little bit more drawn out: The legislation requires that they retain temporary status for five more years, after which they would be eligible to apply for a three-year green card. Only after that would they be able to apply for citizenship.
As Mic reported in January after Biden first announced his intention to overhaul immigration policy, "While three and eight years respectively are long periods of time to wait for basic protections afforded to most citizens, the measure ... would constitute the fastest shift in documentation status of any recent presidential administration." Other shifts include using technology, rather than a physical border wall, to patrol the U.S.-Mexico border, as well as the establishment of "processing centers" in Central American countries to deter immigration into the U.S.
Notably, the legislation marks a rhetorical shift as well, trading the pejorative term "alien" for "noncitizen" when referring to immigrants living in the U.S. without documentation. While this isn't part of the legislative agenda per se, it does reflect back the Biden administration's goal of moving away from the dehumanization and criminalization of immigrants.
"They are our teachers, our classmates, entrepreneurs and small business owners, parents, students, members of the military who take an oath to defend us. They are our neighbors and yes, they are the essential workers that are carrying our community forward during this COVID crisis," said Rep. Linda Sánchez (D-Calif.), who sponsored the bill in the House. "They deserve permanent relief."