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WASHINGTON — President Joe Biden's immigration legislation will include new protections for children migrating from Central America, including the return of an Obama-era program that lets children apply for refugee or asylum status in the United States from their home countries.
In August 2017, the Trump administration stopped allowing children to seek asylum from El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras, a key feature of the Central American Minors program begun under Obama.
Other details of the legislation revealed on Thursday include hiring more immigration judges to handle asylum cases, offering "humane alternatives" to immigrant detention and changing the term "alien" to "noncitizen" in immigration laws.
The bill will also include an expedited path to citizenship, allowing young immigrants known as Dreamers, certain farm workers and immigrants under Temporary Protected Status to immediately be eligible for green cards and then citizenship within three years. All other undocumented immigrants in the United States since Jan. 1 would be eligible for green cards within five years and citizenship in eight years under the legislative proposal, according to a staff member for Sen Robert Menendez, D-N.J., who spoke with reporters at an event hosted by American Business Immigration Coalition, an advocacy group.
Tackling immigration, an issue known for its political divisiveness, as his first major legislative proposal could prove difficult for the new president.
Menendez said he was "under no illusion" that passing the legislation would anything but "a Herculean task."
Republican Sen. Tom Cotton of Arkansas, who proposed restrictions on immigration under the Trump administration, called Biden's proposal an "amnesty plan" that "dismantles existing enforcement" for illegal immigration
The bill would need 60 votes to make it through the Senate, and with Vice President Kamala Harris as a tie breaker, Menendez said he would need to bring at least nine Republicans to agree to the bill.
Other pieces of the legislation, detailed on the call by Menendez, who will introduce the bill, include allowing children to have legal assistance when making their asylum cases in U.S. immigration courts.
"We will no longer force children to make their own case… We will give them assistance to do that," Menendez said.
Menendez said the bill will also increase training and the basic standard of care for children in the custody of Customs and Border Protection and Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Under the Trump administration, at least seven children died in the custody of, or shortly after being released from the custody of, CBP or ICE. Officials for the Trump administration said at the time that they were ill-equipped to handle the influx of families arriving at the southern border and that many of the children came to their custody with severe illness.