The ink isn't even dry on his inaugural address and Joe Biden is already trying to make good on campaign promises.
Just after being sworn in as the 46th American president on Wednesday, Biden directed Congress to pass a sweeping new bill to overhaul the U.S. immigration system. The U.S. Citizenship Act of 2021 includes a pathway to citizenship for 11 million undocumented immigrants, clears employment-based visa backlogs, and claims to make it easier for STEM graduates to stay in the country.
The call to action was part of a Day 1 Presidential Memorandum, ordering the secretary of Homeland Security, in concert with the attorney general, to codify protections for young people who arrived here as children, so-called Dreamers and Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) recipients. DACA refers to a designation, first offered in 2012 under President Barack Obama, that allows a small population of undocumented people to legally work for American companies.
In 2019, more than 1.2 million DACA-eligible individuals--including more than 46,000 entrepreneurs--lived in the U.S., according to data from the New American Economy, a bipartisan immigration research and advocacy organization.
"What we've seen today is as much Biden can do on Day 1 for Dreamers and other groups that have sat in pretty scary limbo over the past four years," says Hanna Siegel, managing director at the New American Economy. It's also notable, she adds, that as the U.S. heads into recovery mode after the pandemic subsides, supporting this group will be vital. "Immigrants are roughly twice as likely to start businesses than U.S. entrepreneurs," she says. "As we look toward a recovery, immigrant entrepreneurs are going to be a big part of that."
The centerpiece of the Biden proposal is to give 11 million undocumented immigrants a path to citizenship. Qualifying immigrants--described as those who pass background checks and pay their taxes--would be given temporary legal status and an ability to fast track their citizenship application, shortening the green card process to eight years from an average of 13 years. Specifically, Biden's plan allows people to apply for green cards after five years if they meet the necessary requirements. Three years later, they would be eligible to apply for citizenship.
Biden's plan also includes modest provisions for reforming the H-1B visa program for highly skilled foreign workers. While the actual legislative text hasn't been revealed, Biden's outline mentions vague notions of reforms like making it easier for those with advanced STEM degrees to stay in the U.S. upon graduation and eliminating unnecessary hurdles for employment-based green cards.
For context, Siegel points out that on the campaign trail, Biden offered a few more details. He mentioned, for instance, exempting any advanced-degree STEM graduates from any green-card caps and eventually giving a green card to people who complete their PhDs.
The bill also provides work authorization for dependents of H-1B visa holders, which is indeed a departure from current rules, says Ronil Hira, an associate professor of political science at Howard University, where he specializes in high-skilled immigration policies. Right now, he notes only spouses of those H-1B recipients who are either being sponsored for green cards or waiting for green cards may work.
If passed, the measure marks the first substantial immigration reform since 1986, when President Ronald Reagan signed the Immigration Reform and Control Act. That law made three million undocumented workers eligible for legal status, but also made it illegal to knowingly employ illegal immigrants. And just like that law, Biden's proposal would surely want bipartisan support for passage, says Hira. Although Senate Democrats can pass a bill without a supermajority--60 votes--they would still want to get buy-in from the GOP, particularly on a potentially polarizing legislation like this. "I think it'll be a hard sell to pass something as significant as what's being proposed with immigration on purely party lines," says Hira.
Biden might not get that support, in part because of Trump's favorite hot-button issue: the Mexican border. While the law would expand use of technology at the southern border instead of relying on Trump's wall, Biden would not require stronger enforcement or more money for border protection, aside from training security forces. Additionally, some lawmakers might not favor expanding the number of approved green cards, which now stands at a little more than one million annually. "If you want to increase your immigration levels, you're going to face opposition from folks who want to keep immigration at its current level or in some cases decrease it," says Hira. "Those numbers really do matter."