On his first day in office, US President Joe Biden signed a series of executive actions to reverse several policies of outgoing President Donald Trump’s administration on immigration, such as the travel ban on citizens of Muslim nations and the building of a border wall with Mexico.
Over his four years in power, Trump took over 400 executive actions on immigration without any congressional input, and Biden is already working to undo some of them. Among the executive orders Biden has signed is one that preserves the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, initiated by former President Barack Obama, which protects undocumented immigrants who came to the US as children – known as “Dreamers” – from being deported. Trump had tried to undo the Obama-era program.
Biden also lifted the “Muslim Ban”, which Trump had signed to deny entry to citizens of predominantly Muslim countries, and halted construction of Trump’s famous border wall on the US-Mexico border. He has also placed a 100-day moratorium on deportations.
Besides the executive orders, which he signed only hours after being sworn in, Biden also sent Congress an expansive bill that aims to overhaul the current immigration system — signalling that immigration is a top priority for his administration. His proposed bill, the US Citizenship Act of 2021, aims to “restore humanity and American values” to the immigration system, and provides a roadmap to citizenship for undocumented immigrants.
New immigration plan
While the text of the bill has not been released yet, the Biden administration has a fact sheet that addresses the proposed changes to both family-based and employment-based immigration, the most significant of which is that the 11 million undocumented immigrants in the US now have a clear, eight-year-path to citizenship.
Undocumented immigrants who were present in the US on or before January 1st 2021 can apply for a green card after five years, and are eligible for citizenship three years after that. The bill also aims to make family-based immigration quicker by clearing backlogs and ensuring shorter wait times, and increases the diversity visa quota from 55,000 to 80,000. Another important proposal is changing the word “alien” to “noncitizen” in American immigration laws.
The act also advocates for smart border controls: the Biden administration wants to use technology at borders to expedite screening and protect privacy, and aims to supplement existing infrastructure at ports of entry. The act goes a step further to address the roots of migration by increasing assistance to countries like El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras. It also plans on improving existing immigration courts to protect refugees and asylum seekers and promises better technology and training for immigration judges.
“In terms of both providing humanitarian protection and supporting legal immigration, the Biden presidency is going to differ from the Trump presidency,” said Jessica Bolter, an associate policy analyst at the Migration Policy Institute. “We’ve already seen that he’s trying to extend protections where former President Trump tried to revoke them.”
Something for everyone
“It’s even going to differ from the Obama presidency — just the fact that President Biden is starting off his administration with an immigration bill is different from President Obama,” Bolter added. Obama famously waited to act on immigration reform since he was pursuing healthcare reform first.
Prashanti Reddy, a New York City-based immigration lawyer, points out that the fact-sheet does not seem as comprehensive as the Democrats’ last attempt to pass immigration legislation, the Border Security, Economic Opportunity, and Immigration Modernization Act of 2013, but is far more liberal. That Obama-era legislation was cleared by the Senate but not the House, and ultimately did not pass.
“Biden has a little bit of something for everyone in there — he’s got reforms for family immigration, and he’s lifting per-country caps, which is significant for employment-based immigration,” she said.
The proposed act preserves and strengthens the family-based immigration system by clearing backlogs, increasing per-country visa caps, and allowing those with approved family-based sponsorship waiting for green cards to stay in the US on a temporary basis.
The employment-based green card backlog stands at 1.2 million people, around 68% of which are Indian nationals. Some of these applicants potentially face a wait period of up to 150 years for a green card, based on the current rate of visa clearances. Meanwhile, over 100,000 children of Indians who have grown up in the US are on the verge of aging out of the green card queue.
Biden’s factsheet states that the new bill will tackle the loophole-riddled employment-based immigration system. It also plans to protect children from aging out, gives dependents of H-1B visa holder work authorization, and generally aims to eliminate “other unnecessary hurdles for employment-based green cards.”
Prioritize immigrant dignity
“Simply put, clearing the backlog requires increasing the number of green cards available. One way for this to happen is for Congress to recapture immigrant visas lost to bureaucratic delay, exempt derivative beneficiaries of employment-based petitions, protect aging out children, and lift country caps,” said Sruti Suryanarayanan, a research and communications associate at the nonprofit South Asian Americans Leading Together.
“Our immigration system must prioritize the dignity of all immigrants, workers, and their families. This is a shared struggle across immigrant communities and requires a shared solution,” she added.
SAALT, she said, is pushing for several other issues to be addressed in 2021. Besides restoring asylum at the border, SAALT is calling for the end of ICE’s mass detention system: 34,000 South Asian asylum seekers were apprehended at the border through 2019.
Suryanarayanan called on the Biden administration “to quickly reverse anti-immigrant policies” and build a more “just and humane” immigration system.
“The health and economic crises have reaffirmed that immigrants and communities of color are essential and yet we are disproportionately impacted because of the government’s prolonged negligence,” said Suryanarayanan.
Reddy, the immigration attorney, added: “Biden is not changing or overhauling the system, he’s just making small changes — perhaps not enough, but it’s a start.” She also said the she was wary of sudden changes since the system may no tbe deesigned to adjust.
Bolter said she is interested to see how the administration deals with the situation at the US-Mexico border and how it reforms the existing US asylum system. “Even before the Trump administration essentially cut off access to asylum at the US-Mexico border, the asylum system was really inefficient,” she said. Biden has promised to revamp the asylum system, but has said it will happen gradually to avoid an influx of asylum-seekers at the border.
“It’ll be interesting to see whether the administration will be able to get support from Congress for a legalization system that’s this broad,” said Bolter.
Republican politicians have previously been opposed to smaller forms of legalisation, and it remains to be seen how the Biden administration will push for this bill. Bolter says they might take a different approach by focusing on smaller subgroups: For example, passing immigration reform specifically for essential workers, or for Dreamers. Or Biden could take further executive action.
“There’s definitely a lot to watch here,” she said.
Most recently the administration has suggested that, though it put forward its own version of immigration, it was willing to let Congress take the lead, even if that means breaking up the proposals into multiple pieces of legislation.
Reddy also warned that since we have not yet seen the text of the bill, it is likely that it will undergo changes. “This is definitely not what the final form of the Bill will look like. Restrictions will be added to make it more palatable for conservatives,” she saidd. “[But] at least it’s a start!”