Several pieces of recently introduced federal immigration legislation could weave new strands into the already complex web of the U.S. immigration system.
The U.S. Citizenship Act of 2021, which was proposed by the Biden administration and congressional Democrats, is the most comprehensive. This bill would eventually allow most undocumented immigrants — about 3.4 percent of the current U.S. population — to become citizens.
Other narrower pieces of bipartisan legislation such as the 2021 American Dream and Promise Act and the Farm Workforce Modernization Act would provide protections and, in some cases, a path to citizenship for specific groups of undocumented immigrants. Those groups include Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) recipients, or “dreamers,” who were brought to the United States illegally as children; immigrants who are eligible for temporary protected status (TPS); and agricultural and essential workers.
As it was introduced to Congress in mid-February, Biden’s comprehensive bill would make dreamers, TPS holders and some immigrant farmworkers — the same groups covered by narrower legislation — eligible for permanent residency immediately and for naturalization after three years.
The process would be more lengthy for other undocumented immigrants. Under the proposed framework, they could immediately apply for a new status as “lawful prospective immigrants,” seek permanent residency after five years and then apply for citizenship three years later. As is the case with the rest of the immigration system, all granted statuses would be contingent on background checks and payment of applicable fees and taxes.
Biden’s bill, which also contains other immigration-related provisions, is unlikely to pass. Democrats hold thin majorities in both chambers of Congress, and Republicans do not support a broad path to citizenship for all undocumented immigrants. But the bills with narrower protections are an opportunity for bipartisan compromise. Democrats hope this piece-by-piece approach to immigration will offer a better chance of success.
One provision stays true for the proposed plans and current policies: All immigrants must hold a permanent resident status, known informally as a green card, for a period of time before applying for naturalization. U.S. immigration laws provide different paths for people to apply through family, employment, refugee or asylum status, or other special provisions.
Currently, spouses of U.S. citizens are the only immigrant group with a three-year wait period between legal permanent residency and citizenship. All other immigrants must have a green card for at least five years, though the requirements to get a green card vary.
Even if official immigration initiatives are limited to dreamers, farmworkers and TPS holders, it could also open a path to citizenship for their immediate family members in the future. The Migration Policy Institute estimates that more than 500,000 spouses and minor children could be sponsored by these groups under existing U.S. immigration laws if they became citizens.
Undocumented immigrants don’t share the same privileges
According to a recent report from the Migration Policy Institute, 60 percent of undocumented immigrants in the United States have lived in the country for a decade or more. Two-thirds of working-age immigrants are employed, while 30 percent are not in the labor force and only 5 percent are unemployed.
“The key point is that while unauthorized immigrants are often characterized as living ‘in the shadows,’ it’s more nuanced for many of them,” said Jessica Bolter, associate policy analyst at the Migration Policy Institute and author of the report. “They go to work each day, attend meetings at their children’s schools, go home to their families … just like U.S. citizens, it’s just that they have to look over their shoulders while they’re doing these things.”
But undocumented immigrants do not have access to major federal public benefits programs like food stamps, Medicaid, Supplemental Security Income and Temporary Assistance for Needy Families. They are not eligible for health-care subsidies under the Affordable Care Act or to purchase unsubsidized health coverage. This is also the case for dreamers and TPS holders, whose access is very limited.
Since 1996, green-card holders have been required to be a legal resident for five years before accessing federal benefits. That requirement is waived for some green-card holders who have worked in the United States for 40 quarters.
Humanitarian immigrants, such as refugees, asylum seekers and victims of violence and human trafficking, are exempt from the five-year requirement and are able to access federal public benefits immediately. All other immigrants and visa holders are ineligible.
Even with immigrants’ limited access to public benefits, there is still a cost associated with providing them. In 2016, George J. Borjas, a professor of economics and social policy at Harvard, estimated that the cost of services provided to legal immigrants exceeded the amount they paid in taxes by at least $50 billion annually.
On the other hand, Borjas also argues that immigrants bring other economic gains, which ultimately offset that cost.
Bolter, from the Migration Policy Institute, echoed that argument. “Unauthorized immigrants make up significant shares of the workforce in industries such as construction, accommodation and food services, and manufacturing,” she said. “These are critical industries that would face serious challenges if they were to lose the part of their workforce that is unauthorized.”
U.S. has a long history of immigration changes
In 1960, 9.7 million immigrants made up 5.4 percent of the total U.S. population. Since then, the country’s foreign-born population has grown immensely, driven by a series of immigration initiatives passed in the 1960s.
In 1962, the Migration and Refugee Assistance Act, championed by President John F. Kennedy, was passed to assist people fleeing conflict.
In 1965, the Immigration and Nationality Act (also known as the Hart-Celler Act), was approved by Congress. It created the basis for the system we have today, switching from a national-origins quota that favored Northern Europeans to a system that gave preference based on categories such as family, skilled workers and refugees.
The act changed the demographic makeup of the country by allowing immigrants from Africa, Latin America and especially Asia, who had been barred from entry under past policies. Implementation was delayed for several years, so the size of the foreign-born population didn’t start increasing until after 1970.
By 2018, 44.8 million immigrants lived in the United States, making up 13.7 percent of the nation’s population, according to Pew Research.
More recently, Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), an immigration policy implemented via executive action by the Obama administration in 2012, allowed qualifying undocumented immigrants brought to the United States as children to apply for temporary deportation relief and a two-year work permit.
The Trump administration attempted to end DACA in 2020, when it was about to phase out, but a Supreme Court ruling restored the policy. Biden signed a presidential action on his first day in office to “preserve and fortify” DACA.
Another subgroup of undocumented immigrants who would be eligible for green cards under the proposed plans are those with temporary protected status (TPS), who are fleeing conflicts or natural disasters in 11 countries designated by the U.S. government.
In 2017, the Trump administration started eliminating TPS for nationals of six countries. The administration argued that TPS was not designed to grant long-term residency to foreigners who may have arrived illegally or overstayed their visas and that the “extraordinary conditions” that brought them to the country no longer existed. This decision was challenged in court by immigrant advocacy groups, so no action has been taken yet.
Even though changes in immigration law would create new pathways to citizenship for millions of immigrants, past data indicates that the majority of them may never become citizens. The vast majority of eligible green-card holders in any given year don’t apply for citizenship.
Although the total number of naturalizations has been trending upward for decades, only about 10 percent of eligible immigrants apply to become citizens each year, according to Department of Homeland Security data. In total, less than half of the 35 million immigrants who were granted green cards since 1980 had been naturalized by 2019.
Immigration initiatives still uncertain
Over the past two decades, attempts to legalize undocumented immigrants have been largely unsuccessful. In 2013, bipartisan immigration legislation was introduced in the Senate by a group known as the “Gang of Eight,″ among them Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) and Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) The legislation proposed a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants living in the country and border security and visa tracking improvements. It also included improving the agricultural worker program, business immigration changes and fast-tracking green cards for graduate visa students in the STEM fields.
The bill passed the Senate 68 to 32 with 14 Republicans joining all Democrats. It was never accepted by the Republican-led House of Representatives, which largely opposed the measure. Among the Republican senators who voted for the immigration bill in 2013 were Susan Collins (Maine) and Lisa Murkowski (Alaska).
Biden’s current immigration bill has not received public support from any Republican so far, and it seems unlikely to pass since GOP voters supported the hard-line immigration policies that were a cornerstone of President Donald Trump’s administration and campaign.
The House will not vote this month on comprehensive immigration legislation but will instead focus on the reintroduction of the American Dream and Promise Act and the Farm Workforce Modernization Act, CNBC reports. Versions of both bills passed in the chamber in 2019.
Democrats and advocates see the current moment as an opportunity to bring immigration changes to the forefront.
“The reason we have not gotten immigration reform over the finish line is not because of a lack of will,” Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), who is sponsoring the U.S. Citizenship Act in the Senate, said in an online news conference. “It is because time and time again, we have compromised too much and capitulated too quickly to fringe voices who have refused to accept the humanity and contributions of immigrants to our country.”