Articles in this guide describe key features of legislation passed by the House to advance President Biden’s Build Back Better agenda and overhaul social and climate policy in the United States. The bill now moves to the Senate.

The reconciliation bill would create the largest mass-legalization program for undocumented immigrants in U.S. history, but it falls well short of a path to U.S. citizenship. Roughly 7 million of the 11 million undocumented immigrants would be eligible to apply for work permits, permission to travel abroad, and benefits like state driver’s licenses, a major step for immigrants from Mexico, Central America and other lands who remain vulnerable to being deported.

  • The bottom line: Nearly 65 percent of the undocumented immigrants in the United States would be protected from deportation for up to a decade. The largest affected groups are from Mexico, followed by Central America, but the group also includes people from Asia, Africa and all over the world.
  • What critics say: Republicans oppose the work permits — or any form of legalization — because of an influx of new migrants at the U.S.-Mexico border this year. They worry that granting millions work permits will entice more to follow and say that undocumented immigrants compete with Americans for low-wage jobs. Some immigrant advocates also oppose work permits and are demanding citizenship for longtime residents.
  • Senate prognosis: The Senate parliamentarian has twice rejected a path to citizenship, saying it is a weighty policy that does not belong in a tax-and-spend bill. Democrats argue that immigration is a clear economic imperative, pointing to nationwide labor shortages and the country’s reliance on immigrant workers during the pandemic. If the Senate parliamentarian also rejects the House plan, then Senate will have to decide whether to craft another proposal or disregard her advice and pass it anyway.

President Biden favors a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants, and in January he sent a bill to Congress that would have granted virtually all of them a path to U.S. citizenship. Talks with Republicans collapsed as attempted border crossings surged past 1.7 million in the fiscal year that ran from Oct. 1, 2020 to Sept. 30, so Democrats have turned to their next best option: reconciliation.

Congress has not passed a citizenship bill since the 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act, signed by Republican President Ronald Reagan, put nearly 3 million immigrants on a path to U.S. citizenship. The law was also supposed to end illegal immigration “forever,” Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) wrote in his memoir, but the numbers soared instead.

Separately, the measure would also restore more than 400,000 green cards that went unused because of bureaucratic or pandemic-related delays. Green cards are for permanent residents, who are on a path to citizenship, and are typically sponsored by immediate relatives or employers. Others win green cards through the annual diversity visa lottery.

Work permit program: The House provision would grant at least 7 million undocumented immigrants “parole,” formally admitting them into the United States if they file an application, pay a fee and pass background checks. Then they would be eligible to apply for permits, authorization to travel outside of the United States, and driver’s licenses.

To qualify, immigrants must have arrived before Jan. 1, 2011, and lived here ever since. Work permits would be valid for five years, and could be renewed one time, extending protections through September 2031.

Though far from a path to citizenship, the measure would transform immigrants’ lives in the United States by allowing them to seek permission to travel to their native countries for the first time in years, if not decades, and to secure official government-issued identification such as state driver’s licenses, which the majority of states do not offer to undocumented immigrants, including Texas, home to more than 1.6 million undocumented immigrants, the second-largest number in the United States.

Issues at stake: Most undocumented immigrants have little to fear under the Biden administration, which is only targeting threats to public safety and recent border crossers for deportation. But Democrats say it is critical to include immigration protections now because a future president could change Biden’s rules. Democrats are also eager to codify the protections in law to thwart the types of legal challenges that have upended executive programs such as the Obama-era Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA). A federal judge in Texas has limited DACA, saying that the executive branch overstepped its authority and that Congress should have created the program instead.