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Democrats call for ‘big, bold’ action on immigration as Biden’s bill is introduced

President Biden signed a trio of executive orders on Feb. 2 to reverse his predecessor’s crackdown on asylum seekers and refugees.
President Biden signed a trio of executive orders on Feb. 2 to reverse his predecessor’s crackdown on asylum seekers and refugees. (Doug Mills/Bloomberg News)

Democratic lawmakers formally introduced President Biden’s immigration bill Thursday, saying it is imperative to pass legislation that would repudiate the Trump administration’s rhetoric and allow 11 million unauthorized immigrants in the United States to apply for citizenship.

Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), the son of Cuban immigrants and the bill’s sponsor in the Senate, encouraged Democrats to take a “big, bold” approach to immigration after years of failed attempts.

The 353-page bill aims to create the first major immigration overhaul since Republican President Ronald Reagan signed amnesty legislation in 1986 that legalized nearly 3 million people. Lawmakers filed the measure in the House on Thursday and will deliver it to the Senate next week when it is back in session.

Members of both parties have tried to pass immigration reform so many times over the past two decades that some refer to it as the “third rail” of politics, and House and Senate lawmakers acknowledged the difficulties ahead. Most Republicans remain loyal to former president Donald Trump, who moved to limit legal and illegal immigration, and some Democrats are jittery about the increasing number of apprehensions at the U.S.-Mexico border.

But Menendez said Biden’s victory created an “economic and moral imperative” to pass the bill.

“The reason we have not gotten immigration reform over the finish line is not because of a lack of will,” Menendez 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.”

Without citizenship, many immigrants in this Atlanta suburb remain silent

“This time we are going to get it done,” said Rep. Linda T. Sánchez (D-Calif.), the bill’s House sponsor and the daughter of Mexican immigrants, flanked by lawmakers calling themselves “closers.”

Biden, who has said it was a “big mistake” to deport so many undocumented immigrants during the Obama administration when he was vice president, said the bill would “responsibly manage the border,” invest in Central America to eliminate the hunger and violence that propel immigrants north, and modernize legal immigration.

He called immigration an “irrefutable source of our strength” and “essential to who we are as a nation.”

“These are not Democratic or Republican priorities — but American ones,” Biden said in a statement. “I’ve laid out my vision for what it’ll take to reform our immigration system and I look forward to working with leaders in Congress to get this done.”

The U.S. Citizenship Act is the cornerstone of Biden’s effort to counter Trump’s campaign to deport millions of undocumented immigrants, a goal he never achieved. But Trump pushed enforcement to new extremes. He built a higher border wall and horrified many Republicans by ordering the separation of thousands of migrant children from their parents for several weeks in 2018 to deter mass migration.

A Quinnipiac poll released earlier this month showed that 65 percent of Americans said undocumented immigrants should be allowed to apply for citizenship, but only 41 percent of Republicans supported the plan.

Democrats face a daunting political reality: They need 10 Republican votes in the Senate to reach the 60-vote threshold to pass the bill.

Republicans say the measure is weak on enforcement and fear it will spur more illegal immigration at a time of high unemployment in the United States. E-Verify, which checks workers’ legal status, is not mandated in the bill, and Biden has said he would not expand Trump’s border wall.

Biden seeks to restore ‘badly damaged’ refugee resettlement program

“Democrats could not be more wildly out of touch with America’s needs,” Rep. James Comer (Ky.), the ranking Republican on the House Oversight and Reform Committee, said in a statement.

“This immigration plan is a disaster,” said Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.), who has teamed up with Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah) on a bill that would ensure businesses cannot hire unauthorized workers. “It does nothing to secure our borders, yet grants mass amnesty, welfare benefits . . . to over 11 million people who came here illegally.”

The Citizenship Act would create two paths to citizenship: Farmworkers, “Dreamers” who arrived in the United States as children, and people with temporary protected status — who cannot return home because of wars or natural disasters — would immediately become eligible for green cards and could apply for citizenship after three years.

Millions of others would be eligible to apply in eight years, according to the bill.

Applicants must pass background checks, pay taxes, and have been in the United States as of Jan. 1, a requirement meant to avoid a rush to the southwestern border.

Democrats say the bill invests in border security by targeting narcotics and human smugglers, penalizing employers who exploit unauthorized workers, and expanding anti-gang task forces in Central America.

Lawmakers and senior administration officials did not say this week how much the new bill would increase legal immigration flows. But they would clearly increase. Besides creating millions of new legal immigrants, the bill would also expand the diversity visa lottery — which is open to immigrants from countries whose citizens do not frequently migrate to the United States — to 80,000 visas a year from 55,000 a year, and triple the number of U visas for crime victims to 30,000 a year.

Advocates for immigrants said they were hopeful for the bill’s passage but urged the Biden administration to consider an alternate route if it stalled.

Advocates and 100 lawmakers, including Sánchez, have urged Biden to consider legalizing at least 5 million undocumented immigrants via a budget-reconciliation package, which would require only a simple majority vote to clear the Senate.

Patrice Lawrence, co-director of the UndocuBlack Network, an immigrant advocacy organization led by Black immigrants, said she hoped lawmakers would consider reconciliation, after years of failed efforts.

Lawrence, 31, came to the United States at age 18 from Jamaica and was accepted to law school but could not afford it because she missed the age cutoff for President Barack Obama’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, which granted work permits to immigrants who arrived as children.

She has not visited home for a decade, for fear of being unable to return.

“I miss my family. I’ve had way too many funerals, weddings and graduations that I have missed,” she said.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) called the bill’s filing Thursday “hopeful and historic,” and Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) said creating a path to citizenship is “one of the most important things this Congress can do.”

But the leaders did not say if they would support passing the bill via reconciliation. Pelosi said in an interview that “there are people who are advocating for that,” but she said it is unclear if that was possible.

“If it would that would be wonderful because then we wouldn’t need the 60 votes,” she said.

Menendez said he hoped the citizenship act would pass, but he said at the news conference that lawmakers “are not foreclosing any pathway into which we can achieve robust immigration reform.”

Menendez was part of the “Gang of Eight” in the Senate that led passage of an immigration bill in 2013, only to watch it die in the House.

Erica Werner, John Wagner and Scott Clement contributed to this report.