Biden introduces sweeping immigration reform bill, rolling back Trump orders

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Before President Biden was officially sworn in Wednesday, his incoming administration announced several significant immigration-related actions the new president planned to take on his first day in office, signaling the start of what he has promised will be a more welcoming and humane contrast to the hard-line anti-immigrant policies of the Trump era.

Following his inauguration Wednesday, Biden signed the first of many executive orders he plans to issue in the coming days to undo a variety of controversial Trump policies, such as the bans on travel to the U.S. from several mostly Muslim and African countries, and paused the construction of a wall along the southern border.

In addition to rolling back these and other Trump orders via executive action, Biden’s day-one immigration agenda includes the introduction of an ambitious legislative overhaul of the U.S. immigration system.

The U.S. Citizenship Act of 2021, which Biden planned to send to Congress Wednesday, would create an eight-year pathway to citizenship for nearly 11 million undocumented immigrants currently living in the U.S., expand the use of new screening technologies to bolster border security and provide assistance to Central America as part of an effort to address the root causes of migration from the region.

President Joe Biden signs his first executive order in the Oval Office of the White House on Wednesday, Jan. 20, 2021, in Washington. (Evan Vucci/AP)
President Biden signs his first executive order in the Oval Office on Wednesday. (Evan Vucci/AP)

Among other things, the sweeping reform bill also includes a NO BAN (National Origin-Based Antidiscrimination for Nonimmigrants) Act, prohibiting religious-based discrimination and limiting presidential authority to issue future immigration bans, as well as provisions to expand access to Diversity Visas, refugee admissions and other humanitarian protections, and to improve the asylum system and immigration courts, which have been severely undercut over the last four years.

The announcement of Biden’s plan to introduce this reform bill on Wednesday was viewed by many immigration advocates as a welcome sign that the new president intends to go beyond simply reversing the extreme restrictions imposed under Trump and to work with Congress to pass what advocates argue are much-needed fixes to a broken immigration system — something the Obama administration failed to accomplish.

“The provisions in the U.S. Citizenship Act will strengthen communities, reunite families and harness the creativity and talent of immigrants who want to be a part of the American Dream in a way that has been impossible for decades,” said Benjamin Johnson, executive director of the American Immigration Lawyers Association. “Beyond repairing the damage done over the past four years, these executive actions and this bill, combined with longer-term changes, will ensure a brighter and better future for America. We look forward to working with the new administration to bring forth a new vision for this country’s immigration policy.”

Isaiah Buffong holds a sign at a rally, Monday, Nov. 9, 2020, in New York. Those at the rally are asking President-elect Joe Biden to prioritize immigration reform. (Mark Lennihan/AP)
A rally in New York on Nov. 9, calling on President-elect Joe Biden to prioritize immigration reform. (Mark Lennihan/AP)

Krish O’Mara Vignarajah, president and CEO of the nonprofit Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service, applauded the proposal in a statement Wednesday, highlighting in particular the dedication of funds for effective alternatives to detention for asylum seekers in the United States, as well as increased foreign aid and the establishment of a refugee processing center in Central America.

“President Biden’s immigration plan demonstrates that humane policy is smart policy,” said Vignarajah. “If passed, this legislation will modernize our immigration system, keep families together, expand economic opportunity, address the root causes of migration, and restore United States leadership as a refuge for those fleeing persecution.”

While immigration advocates broadly praised Biden’s day-one immigration agenda, many emphasized that both the immigration reform bill and the executive actions are simply the first of many steps the new administration will need to take to repair the damage caused by four years of Trump’s anti-immigrant policies and rhetoric.

President Biden delivers his inaugural address on the West Front of the U.S. Capitol on January 20, 2021 in Washington, DC.  (Rob Carr/Getty Images)
Biden delivers his inaugural address on Wednesday. (Rob Carr/Getty Images)

“These are welcome first steps after four brutal years of attacks on Black and Brown people. But much more needs to be done,” Manar Waheed, legislative policy counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union, said in a statement Wednesday.

Waheed and others noted that the proposals outlined in Biden’s immigration reform bill, as well as the executive actions he signed Wednesday, represent just part of the immigration-related actions the new president promised to take upon entering the White House, which also include a 100-day freeze on deportations, the reversal of a Trump policy forcing asylum seekers who arrive at the southern border to wait in Mexico while their cases are adjudicated in U.S. immigration court, and the creation of a task force to reunite families separated at the border.

“We are relieved to see President-elect Biden acting swiftly on his first day in office, and we hope to see these additional bold reforms in the upcoming days,” said Waheed. “The signature of the Trump administration was cruelty towards immigrants and people of color writ large. In order to end this chapter and bring about true justice for immigrants, the Biden-Harris administration will have to continue to act deliberately and aggressively — people deserve to feel safe, today.”


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