Here we go again. On January 20, 2021, President Biden sent the U.S. Citizenship Act of 2021 to Congress. On February 18, 2021, Representative Sánchez (D-CA) introduced the U.S. Citizenship Act of 2021 in the House. On the same day, Senator Menendez (D-NJ) introduced an identical bill in the Senate.
From a macro level, the bill includes changes that will strengthen and improve our legal immigration system, reunify families who have been separated by years long visa backlogs, and provide a path to citizenship for Dreamers and other undocumented people residing in the United States while, at the same time, addressing the root causes of migration to the United States from Central America.
Let me focus on the one area which, in the Trump administration, caused so much consternation among the far right-wing of the Republican Party that it caused “the wall” to become one of the central pillars of Trump’s immigration policy.
President Biden’s immigration bill creates an earned roadmap to citizenship for undocumented individuals. Specifically, the bill allows individuals in the United States without status to apply for temporary legal status, with the ability to apply for green cards after five years, if they pass criminal and national security background checks and they pay their taxes. In addition, “Dreamers,” those in temporary protected status, and immigrant farm-workers who meet specific requirements are, under the legislation, eligible for green cards immediately. Furthermore, after three years, all those green card holders who pass additional background checks and also demonstrate knowledge of English and U.S. civics can apply to become U.S. citizens.
There are other requirements too, including a requirement that applicants must have been physically present in the United States on or before January 1, 2021 (although the Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security (“DHS”) can waive the physical presence requirement for those who were removed on or after January 20, 2017 (i.e., Trump’s inauguration day) if they were physically present for at least three years prior to their removal, in the interest of family unity and other humanitarian purposes). Finally, President Biden’s bill address some Progressive’s concerns by changing the word “alien”to “noncitizen” throughout our immigration laws and regulations.
As constructed, the Immigration and Nationality Act (“INA”) has three primary approaches to addressing unauthorized individuals in the United States: removal / deportation, deterrence (e.g., imposing criminal sanctions on employers who hire unauthorized or undocumented workers, etc.), and to a far lesser degree, legalization (which exists today in the form of, e.g., asylum and other humanitarian provisions of the INA, but not nearly at the level that’s needed to address all the individuals in the United States who are here without status).
This notion of a pathway to permanent residence (or possibly even U.S. citizenship) has been problematic for many or even most Republicans for as long as I can remember. I feel like I’ve written about it seemingly forever. The original “Dream Act” dates back to 2001. That year, the Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors Act (the original “DREAM” Act) was introduced in the 107th Congress. It provided a pathway to lawful permanent resident (i.e., “Green Card” or “LPR”) status for eligible individuals. In most cases, Green Card holders must first have resided in the United States for five years before they could naturalize. However, instead of the focus singularly being on the 11 to 13 million unauthorized individuals in the United States, and the diametrically opposite policy choices of somehow either removing all of them or “regularizing” them in the United States, the focus shifted to a subset of that overall population.
That is, the original bill in 2001 provided immigration relief to what was referred to as “unauthorized childhood arrivals” who, like the larger unauthorized population, were typically also unable to work legally and were also subject to removal from the United States. But many policymakers, and indeed the majority of the general population today, viewed and continue to view this portion of the unauthorized population more sympathetically than unauthorized immigrants on the whole because unauthorized childhood arrivals had arrived in the United States as children, generally through no fault of their own, and consequently, they were not seen as being responsible for their unlawful status.
Whether we continue to focus on the overall unauthorized population, or the subset of that population now commonly known as the Dreamers, the reality is the problem of any or all of them being here is not going to go away until we as a nation take steps to resolve the issues of why they came here in the first place and, now that they’re here, what we do with (and for) them.
From an economic standpoint, President Biden has history on his side that some sort of legalization program would be a boon for the U.S. economy; that is, the notion of legalizing unauthorized individuals is not only a humanitarian gesture, but it will also create an economic benefit to the United States. Studies show that individuals who are in the United States lawfully earn more than those who are unauthorized. What’s more is that these extra earnings generate more tax revenue for federal, state, and local governments; they also result in more consumer spending which sustains more jobs in U.S. businesses. There’s no shortage of substantive economic (and legal) arguments why President Biden should not fight, and fight hard, to get his legislation passed.
The U.S. Citizenship Act of 2021 is President Biden’s first, and may end up being his best (and only), effort to address these incredibly important issues. I hope that Americans, all of us, can get our acts together and support this sensible and reasonable solution to a problem that has vexed our policymakers for generations. The U.S. Citizenship Act of 2021 is legislation that builds upon the contributions of immigrants in and to the United States, reunites families, strengthens our economy, expands humanitarian protection programs, and importantly, provides legal status and ultimately citizenship for the 11 to 13 million unauthorized individuals, young and old, who currently live in the shadows. Let’s create some sunlight for them.
 There’s probably two subsets that have received attention, the second one being agricultural workers. I’ll save that discussion for a separate article.