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Path to Citizenship

Biden Proposes immigration reform

By Christine Bolaños

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In his first day in office, President Biden announced a comprehensive and ambitious immigration reform bill, known as the U.S. Citizenship Act of 2021, which seeks to overhaul the country’s flawed immigration system and offer a pathway to citizenship to 11 million undocumented immigrants, including individuals on Temporary Protected Status, Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, essential workers on non-immigrant status and farmworkers. He also announced a roll-back of Trump era policies like the bans on travel to the U.S. from several Muslim and African countries and froze construction of the Mexico-U.S. border wall. 

Biden’s proposal allows families to stay together while awaiting their legal status court decisions; makes it easier for U.S. university graduates with advanced STEM degrees to stay in the country; improves access to green cards for low-wage workers; and eliminates hurdles for employment-based green cards, among many other actions. It would also provide additional support for border screening and processing; replace the word “alien” with the word “noncitizen” in U.S. law, and increase aid to Central America in order to “address the underlying causes of migration.”

“The legislation modernizes our immigration system, and prioritizes keeping families together, growing our economy, responsibly managing the border with smart investments, addressing the root causes of migration from Central America, and ensuring that the United States remains a refuge for those fleeing prosecution,” according to a White House statement. “The bill will stimulate our economy while ensuring that every worker is protected. The bill creates an earned path to citizenship for our immigrant neighbors, colleagues, parishioners, community leaders, friends, and loved ones --- including Dreamers and essential workers who have risked their lives to serve and protect American communities.” 

This was welcome news for the millions of migrants whose future in the U.S. hung in the balance for years and even decades. They were subjected to harsh immigration policies during former President Trump’s four years in office, including the separation of more than 600 children from their parents at the border. More than 100 of the children have been reunited with their parents by lawyers in Biden’s first month in office. 

As details of Biden’s immigration plan spread through mainstream media, immigration advocates sounded the alarm on news that the new administration had re-opened a migrant children’s facility in Texas to handle the higher influx of minors at the border which was exasperated by a historic winter storm. In addition, a federal court ruled in Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton’s favor that Biden’s 100-day freeze on deportations was unconstitutional, heightening tension and cynicism many already felt about Biden’s true potential to overhaul the country’s broken immigration system. 

"This is not okay, never has been okay, never will be okay — no matter the administration or party," Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) said in reaction to the opening of the Carrizo Springs facility in a tweet that went viral. 

The ACLU, which sued to block family separation and reunite families, called for full transparency and accountability for the temporary shelters, including allowing independent organizations and lawyers to monitor the shelter, to be operated by nonprofits and to be closed as soon as public health allows.

“At the highest levels of American government, a cruel and unconstitutional family separation practice was authorized,” said ACLU Executive Director Anthony D. Romero. “It was shocking in its inhumanity, akin to Japanese-American internment and the turning back of Jewish refugees who were escaping Nazi Germany aboard the St. Louis. The U.S. has an affirmative obligation to reunite the separated families here if they so choose, provide a pathway to citizenship for these families, and to remedy the trauma these children and parents endured.”

Lawmakers and organizers who have long pushed for immigration reform and have worked closely with Biden, in different capacities, are confident that Biden will follow through on his promise for sweeping immigration reform. “The entire country believes in comprehensive immigration reform. It’s his responsibility to put forth a plan that’s sweeping, bold and courageous. It’s exactly the right direction,” said Henry  R. Muñoz III, who served as National Finance Chairman of the Democratic National Committee from 2013-19. He is Chairman Emeritus of The Smithsonian National Latino Board, founder of The Dream.US and co-founder of Latino Victory.

Muñoz pointed out that the Act is a good beginning but immigration reform won’t happen over the course of Biden’s first 100 days in office. He said Biden’s time in the Senate has afforded him the understanding of the complexity of passing immigration bills through Congress: “I’m very hopeful that as this process begins, this president will be aggressive in working with leaders like Sen. Bob Menendez (D-NJ) and Congresswoman Linda Sanchez (D-CA) to make this happen.” Menendez and Sanchez introduced the bill in Congress after the Biden-Harris administration first announced it on Inauguration Day.  

“If anyone has the chance of restoring the art of democracy and the civility of the legislative process, it’s Joe Biden,” Muñoz added. 

Congressman Joaquin Castro (D-TX), a native Texan like Muñoz, prioritizes passing immigration reform, especially amid a global pandemic. Castro, who along with Senator Richard Blumenthal (D-CT), authored the Families Belong Together Act, commended Biden’s actions to reunite separated families and promised to reintroduce bicameral legislation to provide a pathway to citizenship to affected families. 

“My grandmother came from Mexico as an orphan and worked her entire life as a maid, a cook, and a babysitter to provide a better life for my brother and me. The American people overwhelmingly support immigration reform and a path to citizenship, and with a Democratic President and a majority in Congress, we need to deliver,” he said. 

Castro added that for generations, undocumented immigrants have made the American economy stronger, but they have not been valued as equal members of society. He believes undocumented immigrants who have served as essential workers during the pandemic are owed a debt of gratitude in the form of citizenship. That is why Castro, joined by newly appointed California Senator Alex Padilla, Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren and California Congressman Ted Lieu, introduced The Citizenship for Essential Workers Act in late February. If passed, the bill would provide a 5-year pathway to citizenship for an estimated 5 million undocumented essential workers. 

“This is not in conflict with President Biden’s immigration reform proposal but it’s a pivotal piece of a comprehensive package,” Padilla said in a virtual press conference. “The ultimate goal is elevating this important piece of it, building up momentum and supporting immigration reform.”

Castro said the pandemic has been dangerous, harmful and burdensome to the entire country, but whereas many Americans had the option to work from home, essential workers had to risk their lives to keep making an income. Some of them ended up paying the ultimate price after contracting coronavirus. 

“Passing immigration reform is one of my top priorities, and it’s a critical part of our economic recovery from COVID,” he said. “This pandemic has exposed the importance of essential workers, including many undocumented immigrants, who have risked their lives in jobs such as farmworkers and nurses to keep all Americans fed, healthy, and moving forward. I believe that we owe these folks not only a debt of gratitude, but we must acknowledge their contributions to our country with the opportunity to become U.S. citizens.”
Castro pointed to meat packing plants as ground zero for COVID. At least 42,534 meatpacking workers have tested positive for the virus in 494 meat plants. At least 203 workers have died from the virus since March 2020 according to an analysis by the Food Environmental Reporting Network. “This was the genesis for this legislation,” he said. 

On the same day that the Citizenship for Essential Workers Act was introduced, Biden said that undocumented immigrants should receive the COVID vaccine without fear of being targeted for deportation. The Department of Homeland Security announced in early February that ICE would not conduct enforcement activities at or near vaccination sites. 

Also, that same week, the U.N.’s International Organization for Migration reported an initial group of 27 people who had been living in a Matamoros, Mexico makeshift camp opposite Brownsville, Texas, had entered the U.S. Some of the residents had lived there for more than a year under Trump’s Migrant Protection Protocols program, which required asylum seekers to wait in Mexico for U.S. court hearings. Biden is gradually allowing thousands of MPP asylum seekers to wait for the court’s decision in the U.S., instead. 

Biden’s comprehensive strategy for addressing the multi-faceted issues in America’s current immigration system has earned him support from key players around the country. “This legislation provides one of the most far-reaching pathways to citizenship and legal residency in recent history,” the New York Immigration Coalition said in a statement. “We are hopeful but know that we must fight to ensure that Congress passes legislation that does not import the wrongs of the broken and criminal legal system, nor lead to more wasteful funding for technology at the border that would undermine everyone’s right to privacy.”

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