A border official checks a passport at the border crossing between Tijuana and the USA.

Omar Martinez | picture alliance | Getty Images

Democrats on Thursday introduced a sweeping immigration bill backed by President Joe Biden, but the legislation faces an uphill battle in the closely divided Congress, with lawmakers already suggesting a piecemeal approach might win more bipartisan support.

The U.S. Citizenship Act of 2021 will reflect priorities outlined by the president in an executive order on his first day of office. The bill’s lead sponsors are Sen. Bob Menendez, D-N.J., and Rep. Linda Sanchez, D-Calif.

On a call with reporters Wednesday evening, Biden administration officials previewed the legislation. According the officials, the proposed bill, among other provisions, would:

  • Establish an 8-year path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants who arrived in the U.S. by Jan. 1
  • Provide an expedited path to citizenship for farm workers and undocumented young people who arrived in the U.S. as children with temporary protected status under DACA
  • Replace the word “alien” with “non-citizen” in law
  • Raise the per-country caps on family and employment-based legal immigration numbers
  • Repeal the penalty that prohibits undocumented immigrants who leave the country from returning to the U.S. for between three to ten years
  • Expand transnational anti-drug task forces in Central America
  • Increase funding for technology at the southern border

The path to citizenship would give undocumented immigrants five years of provisional status, after which they can apply for a green card. Three years later, they can apply for citizenship.

DACA-protected undocumented immigrants and farm workers who can provide work history can skip the five years of provisional status and “go directly to a green card,” a senior administration official said on the call.

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Biden also signed an executive action terminating the state of emergency at the southern border, declared by former President Donald Trump, and pausing border wall construction projects.

While Democrats hold thin majorities in both chambers of Congress, the legislation would require a minimum of 10 Republican votes to defeat a Senate filibuster and move the bill to a vote.

“I know that many are thinking, does the bill have any chance of passing with 60 votes? And the answer is, we won’t know until we try,” Menendez said at the press briefing Thursday.

“We know the path forward will demand negotiations with others. But we are not going to make concessions out of the gate,” Menendez said.

The issue of border security is expected to be a flashpoint of debate between Republicans and Democrats.

“This bill does contemplate investments in all of our ports of entry,” Sanchez said. “We feel very confident that we can be working more efficiently, rather than being fixated on vanity projects like the wall, which have proven to be ineffective.”

Sanchez suggested Democrats are open to a piecemeal approach in addition to a comprehensive package.

“We are pursuing an ‘all of the above strategy,'” Sanchez said at the news conference. “All options are on the table, and we hope to pass robust immigration reform, but there are other great immigration bills that we also will be taking up and hopefully passing as well.”

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., praised the legislation but also suggested the possibility of a piece-by-piece approach.

“I salute the president for putting forth the legislation that he did. There are others that support piecemeal, and that may be a good approach too,” Pelosi said a press briefing Thursday.

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Biden and Congress are turning their attention to infrastructure as the Covid relief bill heads toward completion, so it’s unclear how much the administration and Democrats will prioritize passing comprehensive immigration reform.

When asked whether the president would support abolishing the Senate filibuster or using a budget reconciliation process that would only require a simple majority, Biden administration officials would not directly answer.

“It’s just too early to speculate about it now,” one White House official said. “We want to first defer to our sponsors of this bill about what’s possible and look to leadership on the Hill about how they want to move immigration.”

Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., who has sponsored previous bipartisan immigration legislation, including the Dream Act, said he doubts the feasibility of a comprehensive deal, but saw possibility in a narrower one that would trade a path to legalization for DACA-protected undocumented immigrants for more border security.

“The more people you legalize, the more things will be required to be given, so we’ll see. It starts a conversation,” Graham told NBC News. “You just can’t legalize one group without addressing the underlying broken immigration system. You just in incentivize more. So, a smaller deal may be possible.”

Congress has not passed a large, comprehensive immigration reform bill in decades. In 2013, a bipartisan bill passed in the Democratic-led Senate but was never considered in the Republican-controlled House.

At the time, conservative House Republicans opposed a broad pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants and were against comprehensive legislation, favoring a piecemeal approach that prioritized border security. Former Republican Speaker John Boehner did not bring the bill up for a vote.

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