Democrats unveil Biden's immigration bill, including an eight-year path to citizenship

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Lawmakers and White House officials unveiled sweeping immigration legislation Thursday, including a proposal for a path to citizenship for roughly 11 million migrants living without legal status in the USA.

"We're here today because last November, 80 million Americans voted against Donald Trump and against everything he stood for. They voted to restore common sense, compassion and competence in our government, and part of that mandate is fixing our immigration system," Sen. Bob Menendez, D-N.J., said in a virtual news conference.

The plan is based on the comprehensive immigration legislation proposal President Joe Biden introduced on his first day in office.

The U.S. Citizenship Act of 2021 includes: an eight-year pathway to citizenship for nearly 11 million undocumented immigrants; a shorter process to legal status for agriculture workers and recipients of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program; and an enforcement plan that includes deploying technology to patrol the border.

The bill calls for $4 billion over four years "to confront corruption, enhance security and foster prosperity" in migrant communities." It lays out a plan to create refugee processing in Central America to discourage migrants from trying to travel to the U.S.-Mexican border.

The bill is sponsored by Rep. Linda Sanchez, D-Calif., in the House of Representatives and by Menendez in the Senate.

Legislation faces challenges, lawmakers acknowledge

Passing one large immigration package will be a challenge. Several lawmakers have noted they will try to push through legislation that has already passed in the House, along with the legislation for Biden's proposal.

More: Biden rescinds national emergency at US southern border that allowed Trump to fund border wall

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., didn't offer specifics Thursday about the legislative strategy. Democrats are weighing whether to keep the policy proposals in one large legislative package or try to enact individual elements of it in a piecemeal approach.

"How it happens through the legislative process remains to be seen," Pelosi said. "But it is a priority, and we will be working on it."

Some Republicans criticized the legislation for not including more to address border security.

"The left wants to fund this border security around the Capitol, but they don't want to fund a border wall at our southern border," Rep. Nancy Mace, R-S.C., said in an interview on Fox News Thursday. "I don't understand it at all."

Other Republican lawmakers said it's not the right time to introduce immigration legislation as the nation grapples with the COVID-19 pandemic.

"No! This is not the right time and certainly not the right set of policies," Rep. Bill Johnson, R-Ohio, wrote in a tweet Thursday. "Let’s focus on those Americans who are struggling right now."

Despite some pushback, Menendez said he has had conversations with Republican colleagues on the legislation and some have expressed interest in portions of the bill.

For example, Menendez said, Republicans from states with a large agriculture community expressed interest in parts of the legislation that would affect farmworkers. Republicans from states with a large technology industry are interested in the portions of the bill that address visas.

"The question for them is, yes, you want that part, but what are you willing to join in order to get that, with other elements that are needed for some broader reform?" Menendez said. "So those are the conversations that are going on."

What is in the legislation?

Although lawmakers are working to push through the comprehensive immigration package, they have discussed trying to pass other immigration legislation in tandem with Biden's bill.

Congressional Hispanic Caucus chairman Raul Ruiz said last week that "there's three routes that we're working very hard to secure a vote on these bills before April 1." The Farm Workforce Modernization Act and the Dream and Promise Act, which both passed in the House in 2019, will be among the other bills introduced.

"We have the reform bill that we're proud that Biden fulfilled his promise of having that bill on Day One," Rep. Ruiz, D-Calif., said last Tuesday during a virtual town hall with UnidosUS. "The two other bills that will help us achieve a pathway to citizenship for millions of families are bills that passed last Congress with bipartisan support."

The Farm Workforce Modernization Act would create a pathway to legalization for agricultural or farmworkers, as well as change the visa program for agriculture workers, known as the H-2A visa. The Dream and Promise Act would create a pathway to citizenship for DACA recipients, people who were brought to the country illegally as children and allowed to stay.

The new legislation outlines that the process for citizenship for undocumented immigrants would start with five-year temporary status, then they would be able to apply for a green card, which they would have for three years before being able to apply for citizenship. Only undocumented immigrants who were in the USA by Jan. 1, 2021, would be eligible for the legalization process.

DACA recipients, those with temporary protected status as of Jan. 1, 2017, and farmworkers would be able to directly apply for a green card.

In regards to security, the bill calls for enhancing technology infrastructure at the border for more robust screening at ports of entry to detect contraband and criminal activity.

More: Meet the 7 congresswomen steering Biden's immigration agenda in the House

The last time comprehensive, bipartisan immigration legislation was brought up in Congress was in 2013, and a comprehensive immigration overhaul hasn't passed in more than 30 years.

Sanchez, who is leading the bill through the House along with six other congresswomen, said Thursday that there will be discussion with Republican colleagues to try to get them on board.

"We all know that when you introduce a bill, oftentimes, the end result is not exactly the starting result," she said at the virtual news briefing. "So there will be opportunities for us to talk with our Republican colleagues and educate them about what is in the bill, address concerns and modify it, but we are confident that we can get this done."

Over the past several weeks, Biden has begun unwinding several of President Donald Trump's hard-line immigration policies, including halting construction on the border wall along the U.S.-Mexican border and establishing a task force to reunify children separated from their parents or guardians at the border under Trump's "zero tolerance" policy.

Activists call for end to filibuster

Though activists praised the bill, they warned lawmakers and the Biden administration that it will be difficult to pass with bipartisan support. Some activists suggested that the Senate filibuster would have to be abolished to pass the legislation.

"If Republicans come forward with ideas and votes, then it might be viable to press for reform on a bipartisan basis. But we should be clear-eyed about the realities of the current Republican Party, its bad faith towards Biden and its cowardly fealty to the vocal contingent of Trumpy anti-immigrant voters," Frank Sharry, executive director of America’s Voice, said in a statement. "If Democrats eliminate or reform the filibuster, this bill would have a chance to pass with Democratic votes alone."

Erika Andiola, chief advocacy officer at RAICES (the Refugee and Immigrant Center for Education and Legal Services), said in a statement that the filibuster must be ended, that Biden should use executive action to protect immigrant communities and that a pathway to citizenship for some immigrants should be included in a COVID-19 relief package.

"Now is the time for Democrats to use every tool at their disposal to provide protection to the immigrant community without relying on the party of Trump and without compromising on further inhumane enforcement,” Andiola said in the statement.

Contributing: Christal Hayes

Reach Rebecca Morin at Twitter @RebeccaMorin_

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Immigration: Biden plan to include eight year path to citizenship