Biden immigration reform bill: What’s changing in 2021 for green cards, citizenship

Mar 3, 2021 | H-1B Visa, Immigration law, News

President Biden’s US Citizenship Act of 2021 has been introduced in Congress. The bill sets a course for naturalization while seeking to reverse former President Trump’s tight immigration policies.

President Joe Biden has reversed former President Donald Trump’s ban on legal immigration and reopened the US to people seeking green cards. In a proclamation made Feb. 24, Biden said that suspending the entry of immigrants is detrimental to US interests, harming US citizens and industries.

The latest order is part of Biden’s hefty immigration reform package — formally named the US Citizenship Act of 2021 — which would include providing an eight-year path to citizenship for over 11 million undocumented immigrants if it becomes law, as well as preserving and fortifying the DACA program. The sweeping proposal, which was introduced in Congress in February, aims to reverse and revise policies from the previous administration.

Lawmakers appear to be anticipating pushback on the bill’s passage but are prepared to take a piecemeal approach.

“We’re pursuing an all-of-the-above strategy,” the bill’s lead sponsor, Rep. Linda Sanchez, said in a press conference in February. “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.”

In February, Biden signed three more executive orders about immigration. The orders individually seek to reunite immigrant families separated at the border, investigate humanitarian issues at the US’ southern border and review the previous administration’s immigration policies for groups like undocumented essential workers, Dreamers and Temporary Protected Status recipients.

Here’s what you need to know about Biden’s new immigration plans and how the path to naturalization would work for millions of undocumented US residents.

Biden’s citizenship plans: What to know

We don’t have a physical bill to thumb through yet, but it could be over 100 pages. Again, a key policy is that in addition to the mass reversals of Trump’s policies, the Biden administration wants to provide an eight-year path to citizenship for the almost 11 million unauthorized people living in the US.

The citizenship timeline is pretty easy to understand. Those living in the US without legal status as of Jan. 1, 2021, could gain temporary legal status, or a green card, in five years. To do so, they’d need to pass a background check, pay taxes and meet other requirements. Millions of unauthorized immigrants already pay taxes by using an Individual Taxpayer Identification Number. Workers without legal status generate millions of dollars for Social Security and Medicare, yet aren’t eligible for any of the benefits that accompany a Social Security number.

After that, Biden’s plan outlines a three-year path to naturalization if the person pursues citizenship.

It’s also possible that Biden could flesh out the executive order pertaining to DACA to give the program’s recipients an even quicker path to naturalization.

How many people are in America without legal status?

About 10.5 million of the immigrants in the US are unauthorized, according to the Pew Research Center based on augmented US Census Bureau data from 2017. Pew also reported about 35 million immigrants who were naturalized citizens, 12.3 million lawful permanent residents and 2.2 million temporary lawful residents.

More than 60% of unauthorized immigrants have lived in the country for over 10 years, and they have over 4 million US-born citizen children and account for 5% of the workforce, according to The New York Times.

It’s important to note that, under the 14th Amendment, any person born in the US is a citizen, no matter the citizenship status of their parents. The Times also noted that about four in 10 unauthorized immigrants did not enter the US through border crossings. Many arrived in the US on student or work visas and remained, or fled violence in their home country.

Biden signed an executive order in support of accurate census counts regardless of immigration status in January, so it’s possible we’ll have an updated picture in the future. Trump had previously signed Executive Order 13880, which aimed to exclude undocumented immigrants living in the US from being counted in the census.

Biden’s plan is different from DACA

Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, only pertains to the children of unauthorized immigrants, aka Dreamers. Biden’s plan would include everyone living in the US without legal status as of Jan. 1, 2021. The Obama administration had previously put a type of sister program in place called DAPA, or Deferred Action for Parents of Americans and Lawful Permanent Residents, in 2014. DAPA was meant to protect illegal immigrants with children who were American citizens or lawful permanent residents by deferring deportation. Trump issued Executive Order 13768 in 2017, which canceled DAPA but kept DACA.

Biden’s plan, however, would provide a fresh path to citizenship regardless of whether a person has children. The Citizenship Act of 2021 offers protections for a wide range of immigrants.

Biden’s plan would include:

  • DACA Dreamers
  • Temporary Protected Status holders
  • Immigrant farmworkers
  • Orphans, widows, children
  • Filipino veterans who fought alongside the US in World War II
  • Immigrants with approved family-sponsorship positions to join their family in the US on a temporary basis
  • Asylum seekers (the bill seeks to eliminate the one-year deadline for filing asylum claims)
  • Other vulnerable populations like U visa, T visa and VAWA visa applicants
  • Foreign nationals assisting US troops

What would have to happen next for Biden’s plan to go into effect?

To become law, the legislation still needs to move through proper channels. Both Democrats and Republicans agree that Biden’s reform bill is a massive undertaking, but Biden has also said he’s willing to push the bill through Congress in pieces.

New Jersey Democratic Sen. Bob Menendez has said that despite initial Republican pushback, bipartisan agreement is possible. It’s also necessary. Even though Democrats hold the Senate majority, the chamber has a 50-50 split, which could spell resistance for one big bill. This also means we could see piecemeal legislation.

How Biden’s approach to immigration differs from Trump’s

Lawmakers have been creating and debating immigration policies since the country’s infancy; the new administration is mostly focused on the policies in effect in the last decade.


How it started: Trump dealt a crippling blow to the DACA program in 2017 when Attorney General Jeff Sessions said no further applications would be considered. The future of countless recipients became uncertain. The Supreme Court in June 2020 ruled that Trump could not shut down the program in a narrow vote that allowed 800,000 Dreamers to remain in the US.
How it’s going: Biden signed a memorandum titled Preserving and Fortifying Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals on Jan. 20. The action directs the Secretary of Homeland Security and the Attorney General to lawfully strengthen and protect the program.

Muslim travel ban

How it started: Trump issued a series of executive orders that barred travel and refugee resettlement from select Muslim-majority countries: Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen. The restrictions expanded to more countries in 2018 and 2020. Like the administration’s attacks on DACA, the travel bans came under legal scrutiny from civil rights groups such as the ACLU. In 2018, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of the third version of the order.

How it’s going: Biden signed the Proclamation on Ending Discriminatory Bans on Entry to the US, which overturns the Muslim travel bans — namely Executive Order 13780, as well as Proclamations 9645, 9723 and 9983 put in place by Trump. Biden’s order also aims to dust off the backlog of immigration waiver processing and resume visa processing.

ICE, sanctuary cities and deportation

How it started: In 2017, the Trump administration introduced a policy known as Enhancing Public Safety in the Interior of the United States, or Executive Order 13768. The order broadly bolstered immigration authorities to deport families, longtime residents and Dreamers. Sanctuary cities — communities that shielded undocumented immigrants from deportation — that did not cooperate risked losing federal grants from the Department of Justice.

How it’s going: On Day 1, Biden signed an executive order revising civil immigration enforcement policies, which subsequently revoked Executive Order 13768. Biden’s executive order vowed to protect national and border security, as well as address humanitarian issues at the southern border.

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