Biden orders about-face on immigration
Conservatives raise concerns about possible blanket amnesty
WASHINGTON—After taking the oath of office Wednesday, President Joe Biden wasted no time repudiating the Trump administration’s policies—particularly on immigration. By the end of Day One, Biden released executive orders to reverse travel and immigration bans on some Muslim-majority countries and others hostile to the United States such as North Korea. He also halted construction of a wall on the U.S.-Mexico border and unveiled a sweeping immigration reform proposal that he urged congressional leaders to take up as a blueprint for a bill.
The proposed U.S. Citizenship Act of 2021 would allow the nearly 11 million illegal immigrants in the United States to earn citizenship by meeting certain qualifications. A summary of the bill states it would allow immigrants to apply for green cards after five years, provided they “pass criminal and national security background checks and pay their taxes.” After three more years, qualifying green card holders could apply for citizenship. The bill also calls for reunifying still-separated families, clearing immigration application backlogs, decreasing wait times, and increasing caps for issuing visas. Recipients of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program would be immediately eligible for green cards, expediting their path to citizenship.
DACA has almost 700,000 participants. The Obama administration formed the program to stop the deportations of immigrants who were brought to the United States illegally as children. Former President Donald Trump moved to rescind DACA in 2017, sparking a court battle. Immigration advocates won a temporary victory in 2020 when the Supreme Court ruled the administration had to keep the program open until it followed a specific procedure for closing it. The issue remains tied up in court: Texas and eight other states sued on the grounds that former President Barack Obama did not have the authority to create the program.
Ultimately, as law experts said last year after the court’s ruling and as Biden’s latest proposal recognizes, Congress must settle the question.
Biden has an advantage that he did not necessarily foresee in November: a Democratic-controlled Senate. However, with the slimmest of majorities (Democrats have 51 votes counting Vice President Kamala Harris’ tie-breaking ability) his party still does not have enough votes to pass legislation without reaching across the aisle. Democrats could try to scrap the filibuster rule that requires 60 votes to pass legislation, but it would be a bold and politically risky move. Any final immigration bill will need at least some bipartisan support.
Biden is going a step further than Obama went on immigration, said Ali Noorani, president of the National Immigration Forum.
“Remember, Obama never introduced legislation … they decided they were going to let Congress develop their own package,” Noorani said. “In this case, what Biden is saying is he is going to put his fingerprints on this.”
Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., on Tuesday called the proposal a “nonstarter” because it provides “blanket amnesty for people who are here unlawfully.” In a tweet, Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., wrote that the bill would allow millions of illegal immigrants “to jump ahead of law-abiding immigrants who followed the rules.”
Also Tuesday Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Mo., refused to consent to a speedy vote on Biden’s nomination of Alejandro Mayorkas as secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, saying Biden’s stance on border security made him skeptical of the choice.
Congress, however, is under pressure from outside groups, including many businesses and trade associations, that want more certainty around immigration and employment questions.
“There’s an incredibly broad range of American institutions pleading with congressional leaders on both sides of the aisle to pursue this sort of reform this year,” said Matthew Soerens, national coordinator of the Evangelical Immigration Table.
He added that many evangelicals support some kind of solution for DACA recipients and might accept some sort of earned legalization process for others in the United States illegally as well. A number of evangelicals, including World Relief president Scott Arbeiter and InterVarsity Christian Fellowship president Tom Lin have expressed tentative support for some aspects of the plan, though they note they haven’t been able to see the bill in its entirety. Soerens said adding fines or fees to the earned legalization process for immigrants could help garner support from evangelicals who “want to be compassionate and do not want to see families divided by deportation, but many of whom are wary of anything close to ‘amnesty.’”
Congress last passed a major immigration bill during Ronald Reagan’s presidency at a time when Democrats controlled both chambers of Congress. While former president George Bush supported immigration reform, the 9/11 terror attacks caused his priorities to shift. The House and Senate passed immigration bills in 2005 and 2006 respectively, but they did not find a way to reconcile the differences between the bills. In 2009, the Obama administration encouraged Congress to tackle immigration reform, but he never garnered the support of enough Republicans.
“I think there is a majority of lawmakers on both sides of the aisle who want to see a solution,” Noorani said. “We are optimistic that there is a moment here where immigrants can be treated with dignity through the laws that Congress makes.”
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