On Thursday, February 18, 2021, Congressional Democrats introduced the U.S. Citizenship Act of 2021, a comprehensive immigration reform bill that was outlined by President Biden on his first day in office. The bill, led by Senator Bob Menendez (D-NJ) and Representative Linda Sánchez (D-CA), would make many changes to the U.S. immigration system, including providing a pathway to citizenship for undocumented individuals and Dreamers, make immigration reforms like recapturing unused visas and raising annual per-country limits on certain visa categories, and implement a strategy to address the root causes of migration in Central America.
The bill would provide for a pathway to citizenship for 11 million undocumented immigrants, including a three-year expedited timeline for Dreamers, immigrants with temporary protected status, and others to gain citizenship. Other undocumented immigrants who pass a background check and pay taxes would have an opportunity to become citizens in eight years. The legislation stops children of H-1B visa holders from aging out of the green-card system and being forced to reapply and would provide work authorization for dependents of H-1B visa holders. The bill would increase per-country caps on family-based immigration as well as recapture unused visas from previous years to reduce visa back-logs.
Addressing underlying causes of migration from Central America is a key part of the legislation. The bill would authorize $4 billion to carry out the Biden Administration’s four-year Central America strategy, including increasing assistance to Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador to combat corruption, violence, and reduce poverty. It would provide for Designated Processing Centers in Central America to allow for more safe opportunities for individuals seeking refuge, asylum, and legal migration. The legislation seeks to modernize border protection measures using technology to detect transnational criminal networks and providing additional resources for the training of border patrol agents for standards of care of individuals in border patrol custody.
With narrow majorities in both chambers, Democrats will face a tough challenge in passing the bill as is. Comprehensive immigration reform passed by Congress has proved elusive in past years; Congress came close in 2013 when the Democratic Senate passed legislation by a margin of 68 – 32, but the Republican-controlled House sought to move in a piecemeal approach and the effort died. Instead, Presidents in both parties have resorted to issuing executive orders to push through their policy agenda on the issue.