Democrats take swing at immigration reform with new bill

President Biden on Thursday made official the most aggressive effort in decades to reform a broken immigration system that was almost completely paralyzed under his predecessor.

Democratic lawmakers are ready to introduce legislation that Biden officials promoted on their first day in the White House, officials said – an ambitious bill that would provide a path to citizenship for some 11 million immigrants living in the United States. United without legal status.

Given that Democrats have slight control in both houses of Congress, progressives have pressured the Biden administration to be “big, bold and inclusive” on immigration reform, as Rep. Linda T. Sánchez said in a statement Wednesday. (D-Whittier) and Senator Robert Menendez (D-New Jersey), major sponsors of the bill.

Republicans, for their part, began to criticize the bill even before it was announced, a potential sign that Biden’s proposal may join the graveyard of Congressional initiatives, as it did under both Democratic and Republican administrations.

But even as they insisted that “this is not a bipartisan bill,” administration officials noted Wednesday that they see the legislation more as an initial offer, and not necessarily something they hope will pass with Republican support. which would be necessary to be approved in its current form.

“It is his vision of what it takes to fix the system,” a White House official said at a news conference, speaking on condition of anonymity without providing a reason, “and it is also an opportunity to restart talks on the suspended immigration reform for the last four years ”.

White House officials offered few new details to the scheme they unveiled last month when they said the bill was sent to Congress.

Its centerpiece is an eight-year path to citizenship for the roughly 11 million immigrants in the United States without legal status, with a five-year wait to obtain permanent legal status, often known as a green card, and three more years before citizenship is granted.

That total of eight years is shorter than the 13 years called for in the last failed comprehensive immigration reform effort in 2013, when a bill spearheaded by the bipartisan “Gang of Eight” passed the Senate but died. without the then Speaker of the House of Representatives, John A. Boehner, putting it to a vote.

The legislation also offers green cards to beneficiaries of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, program who were brought to the U.S. as children, and to thousands of people with Temporary Protected Status, or TPS, who are granted as humanitarian protection due to insecurity in their home countries, effective January 21, 2017, according to administration officials.

Farmworkers who “can prove a work history” will also be able to “go straight to” permanent legal status. Applicants in all three categories will have to go through strict security checks.

While Republicans claim that the Democrat’s early steps are causing many people to be trying to reach the border, White House officials have stressed that the fast track to legal status will apply only to those who were in the United States on January 1st.

Administration officials framed the legislation as steps to “better reflect the president’s values ​​on immigration,” such as changing the term “alien” in the Immigration and Nationality Act, the foundation of the United States immigration system, to “non-citizen”. This change follows a memorandum first reported by Buzzfeed ordering Homeland Security officials not to use the term dehumanized, common in US law, in their communications.

The bill also aims to remove the delays, often decades, to legalizing family members, exempting spouses, permanent partners and children under 21 from the country caps that currently limit their number, and increasing limits for other family and employment based visas.

The legislation would increase diversity visas from 50,000 to 80,000 and give priority to applicants who have been waiting for more than 10 years or who have advanced degrees in STEM.

Certain regions of the U.S., officials said, could apply for additional visas to support economic development through a five-year program authorized by the Department of Homeland Security, as long as they certify that jobs are available and there are no workers. to fill them.

The bill would also remove obstacles that can prevent immigrants who are in the United States without legal status from re-entering the country for up to 10 years.

As one of his first moves in office, Biden repealed Trump’s travel ban, which targeted predominantly Muslim and African countries. The legislation goes further, repealing other Trump-era restrictions against asylum seekers and refugees, as well as instituting measures to prevent future such bans.

The legislation would also try to counter Trump’s focus on asylum, officials said, ending the one-year limit on filing asylum claims; increasing funding for Citizenship and Immigration Services to reduce the backlog that has reached a record 1.3 million cases; providing more immigration judges and support staff; and increasing access to legal advice, particularly for children and other vulnerable groups.

The bill would also triple the number of U visas available, for victims of crime or for those who help law enforcement. As one of his last moves in office, Trump tried in September to reduce eligibility for U visas.

In particular, the bill proposed by the Biden administration does not link the benefits of immigration to law enforcement at the border, as past efforts have done, in part to gain Republican support. Officials said they will instead focus resources on fighting drug and human trafficking networks, strengthening transnational working groups against organized crime in Central America, and improving border technology, especially at ports of entry, where most of the smuggling occurs.

Introducing the high-profile bill – a sign that Biden plans to make immigration reform a legislative priority even as he seeks to quickly address the COVID-19 pandemic and its economic consequences – also increases focus on his commitment to undo the Trump’s damage to America’s immigration system, as the president faces another test early this week.

On Friday, US, Mexican and United Nations officials will begin processing some of the more than 25,000 asylum seekers believed to be stuck south of the US-Mexico border under a Trump policy known as “Remain in Mexico ”that forced them to wait there while the US immigration courts reviewed their cases. The renewed processing will begin at the San Ysidro, California port of entry, officials told the Times. Biden had said he would end the show, but instead put it on hiatus.

Repeatedly questioned about how they will gain GOP support for the bill – it takes at least 10 Republican votes to pass the legislation under current Senate regulations – or whether they will use a process known as budget reconciliation, which would potentially allow As the Biden administration approve it only with Democratic support, White House officials diverted attention.

One official specifically referred to the failed 2013 immigration reform effort, saying, “In the end, a number of significant commitments were made to get votes.”

Roberto Suro, a public policy professor at USC who has followed immigration issues for decades, said that a large comprehensive immigration bill will be a “necessarily long and difficult process.”

But the strategy may ultimately fail, he noted, because there are simply not enough votes to pass such a bill in the short term, given that other bills related to pandemic aid will likely take precedence.

“The White House is signaling to Congress that it has not given up on comprehensive immigration reform,” Suro said. “The question is where is the real play going to happen? Is it going to be the Dream Act – a narrow focus – or are they going to bet on everything? “

Erika Andiola, from the Center for Refugees and Immigrants for Legal Education and Services, called the bill “a good symbolic gesture, but it is not enough.”

“Now is the time for Democrats to use all the tools at their disposal to provide protection to the immigrant community without relying on Trump’s party and without committing to inhumane enforcement of the law,” Andiola said in a statement.

“We have lived through many broken promises on immigration.”

Times editors Cindy Cárcamo in Los Angeles and Molly Hennessy-Fiske in Houston contributed to this report.

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