The U.S. Citizenship Act of 2021 would replace the word “alien” with the word “non-citizen” throughout the immigration code. That simple change signals a crucial change of attitude, saying that we are all human beings. Although a small part of the bill, the change signals an attitude of welcoming and valuing immigrants that flows throughout the Biden Administration-backed legislation.
In the past, bi-partisan coalitions of Democrats and Republicans have supported immigration reform. In 2013, a bi-partisan Senate coalition passed immigration reform, but Republican House Speaker would not allow debate or a vote. During the past four years, many immigration bills passed the House, but Republican Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell would not allow debate or a vote. With Democrats in the majority in the House and Senate (barely), this might be the year that immigration reforms supported by a large majority of the U.S. population will finally become law.
Path to Citizenship
By most estimates, about 11 million undocumented immigrants live in the United States. Most have lived here for more than 10 years. Current law gives them no path to citizenship, no “line” to wait in, no way to ever “become legal.” The U.S. Citizenship Act of 2021 would allow these immigrants to register for a new status: Legal Prospective Immigrant (LPI). As such, they would have to pay any back taxes, which is not likely to present a problem as most of them already work and pay taxes. Each applicant for LPI would have to pass criminal background checks. Once granted LPI, they could apply for a green card (Legal Permanent Residence) after five years. Three years after getting a green card, they could apply for citizenship.
Immigrants with Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) could apply for green cards immediately. They came here as children and got protection from deportation (but not green cards) under the Obama administration. Only Congress can change the law to let them become Legal Permanent Residents, and only Legal Permanent Residents can eventually apply for citizenship.
Others with Temporary Protected Status and some farmworkers could also apply immediately for Legal Permanent Residence (green card) under the U.S. Citizenship Act of 2021.
Keep Families Together
The proposed law would also encourage family reunification by allowing spouses and children of Legal Permanent Residents to apply for visas immediately, without waiting for years for a quota number. The law would abolish punitive three-year and ten-year bars which have prevented many family members from getting green cards.
Other family members with approved petitions would be allowed to remain in the United States while waiting for a quota number.
The law would also eliminate discrimination against LGBTQ families.
Growing the Economy
Senator Bob Menendez (D-NJ), who will be the chief Senate sponsor, gave an overview of the bill in a briefing for the American Business Immigration Coalition (ABIC) on January 21. Senator Menendez pointed out the enormous economic contributions that immigrants already make and the high proportion of immigrants who are essential workers. The bill would also provide better processes for work visas for high-skilled immigrants, including scientists and engineers and doctors. The bill would also recognize the need for agricultural workers and provide labor protections for immigrant workers.
Protecting the Most Vulnerable
The legislation would improve procedural protection for asylum seekers. It would increase the numbers of U visas (for victims of certain crimes), T visas (for trafficking victims), and Violence Against Women Act visas. It also provides for important changes and improvements in the immigration court system and for immigration enforcement practices and personnel.
In his briefing, Senator Menendez acknowledged that passing this law will not be easy. Because of filibuster rules, Democrats in the Senate will need to get at least 10 Republicans to join them to get 60 votes.
“We got more than that in 2013,” Senator Menendez said. “But we have our work cut out for us.” He believes passing the U.S. Citizenship Act is possible and necessary, saying that there is “a moral imperative, a national security imperative, and an economic imperative to pass this legislation.”