Immigration in Congress: One Big Bill, Many Small Ones

*updated 3/5/2021 with new bills and information

Confused by daily reports of bills proposed, introduced, likely to pass, impossible to pass, et cetera? Here’s a quick round-up of immigration legislation introduced in the first two months of the 117th Congress (2021-2022 session). 

On Inauguration Day, President Joe Biden promised sweeping reform of U.S. immigration laws. Since then, the big bill has been introduced, as have at least a dozen smaller bills. The more specific, smaller bills may be easier to pass. I don’t pretend to understand the complexities of getting any bill past the Republicans blockade of the Senate, but apparently the more specific, smaller bills have a better chance. Of course, the best option would be to end the filibuster, but that seems unlikely. 

That legislation has now been introduced in the House (H.R. 1177) and Senate (S. 348) as the U.S. Citizenship Act. For a plain-language summary of the 350+ page bill, see the website of Representative Linda Sanchez (D-CA), chief House sponsor of the bill. 

More than a dozen pro-immigration bills and at least as many anti-immigration bills have been introduced in the House and Senate. More will probably come. As of the end of February, here’s a round-up of the pro-immigration bills and what they mean. Most of the provisions of these bills are also included in the U.S. Citizenship Act. 

The Dream Act is back. 

For the 20th consecutive year, Senator Dick Durbin (D-IL) introduced a Dream Act to provide permanent legal status to millions of immigrants brought to the United States as children.  S. 264, the Dream Act of 2021 is co-sponsored by Senator Lindsey Graham (R-SC)

On February 4, Senators Dick Durbin (D-Illinois) and Lindsey Graham (R-South Carolina) announced legislation that would provide millions of immigrants brought to the U.S. as children with permanent legal status, allowing them to continue living and working in the U.S. without fear of deportation. The Dream Act of 2021 would provide recipients of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) and other Dreamers the opportunity to earn eventual citizenship. That’s the core of the bill, though it includes lots of requirements about time of entry, criminal background checks, educational status, and more. An overwhelming majority of people in the United States support the Dream Act, as they have for years. 

March 5 update: H.R.6, the House version of the American Dream and Promise Act, was re-introduced on March 3.

Temporary Protected Status (TPS)

The Department of Homeland Security grants or ends TPS based on a judgment that nationals of those countries already present in the United States cannot return home safely due to armed conflict or natural disaster. It does not give anyone a right to enter the United States. It does not give anyone a path to permanent residence. If DHS ends the status for a country, then everyone from that country is required to return—no matter how long they have lived in the United States. 

Two bills affect TPS. The first, S. 306, The Safe Environment from Countries Under Repression and in Emergency (SECURE) Act, would provide a pathway to legal permanent residence for everyone who has TPS now and has been in the United States for at least three years. 

A second bill, S. 50The Venezuela TPS Act, would allow Venezuelan nationals to become eligible for TPS. This is a little unusual, as it would substitute Congressional judgment for DHS decision-making.  

Citizenship for Essential Workers

The Citizenship for Essential Workers Act  would provide a pathway to status for an estimated 5 million undocumented workers. They have worked at frontline jobs throughout the pandemic, but have no right to stay in the United States, no unemployment benefits, and no COVID relief payments. Most have lived in the United States for decades. The bill has just been introduced, and no number has been assigned yet. 

Refugees and Asylum Seekers

The Trump administration’s strongest attacks against immigrants targeted the most vulnerable: refugees and asylum seekers. These bills seek to restore or increase protection for refugees and asylum seekers. 

Refugees are people who have fled persecution and are currently outside the United States and seeking admission. Most have been vetted and certified by the U.N. High Commission on Refugees, and have waited in refugee camps for years. 

Asylum seekers are people who arrive at or cross the U.S. border, asking for protection from persecution.  U.S. law already provides for  admission of asylum seekers, no matter how they have crossed the border. 

The Lady Liberty Act (H.R. 977) sets an annual refugee resettlement goal at 125,000 per year, unless the president sets a higher number. Back story:  under current law, the president sets a cap on refugee resettlement each year. Trump reduced that cap every year.  President Biden has already raised it to 62,500 this year and 125,000 next year. 

The New Deal for New Americans Act (H.R. 536) sets a minimum of 110,000 for refugee admissions, but its provisions are much broader than refugees. The New Deal would create a National Office on New Americans, and reduce the fee for naturalization applications to $50, making the path to citizenship more affordable. The legislation also funds English-language learning and workforce development. 

Protecting Children, Veterans, Crime Victims

The Protection of Kids in Defense (PROKID) Act (S. 382 and H.R. 1238) directs the Department of Health and Human Services to protect immigrant children’s rights under the Flores Settlement Agreement and the Trafficking Victims Protection Act. 

The Veteran Deportation Prevention and Reform Act (H.R. 1183) would protect veterans and military family members from deportation. It would also provide a pathway to citizenship for military spouses and children. 

The Protecting Immigrant Victims of Domestic Violence Act (S. 260) would expand protection under the current Violence Against Women Act (VAWA). 

Enforcement and Border Issues

The Protecting Sensitive Locations Act (H.R. 529) would prohibit immigration arrests in designated locations, including schools, hospitals, funeral homes, homeless shelters, places of worship, and court houses. Under the Trump administration, court houses became a particular target for immigration arrests, and no areas were considered off-limits. 

The ICE and CBP Body Camera Accountability Act (H.R. 531)  requires body cameras for Border Patrol and ICE officers, and requires that footage be available for court and administrative proceedings. 

The Missing Persons and Unidentified Remains Act (S. 2174) provides resources for identifying remains of people who die on the border, improves the reporting process, and provides for “rescue beacons” in isolated areas to prevent migrant deaths. 

The Southern Border Communities Reimbursement Act. (S. 256  and H.R. 924) authorizes funding to reimburse local governments and NGOs that provide humanitarian care to migrants at the border with Mexico. 

One important note on race and criminal records

Many of the bills, including the Dream Act and the Essential Workers Act, incorporate current restrictions on eligibility for people with criminal records. Today these restrictions lead to denial of citizenship and even to deportation orders for people who have lived here for decades or even since arriving as refugees when they were infants. The current law enshrines the injustices of the U.S. criminal justice system and its disparate impact on people of color (including immigrants of color) and people living in poverty. Reforms to the current immigration system should not continue this embedded injustice.

That’s the round-up as of today, February 28, 2021.

March 1 update: No Ban Act: According to a press release from Church World Service:

“Representative Judy Chu (CA-27) reintroduced the NO BAN Act in the U.S. House of Representatives. The proposed legislation would prohibit discrimination based on religion and limit executive authority to issue future bans like the Muslim, refugee, and African Bans. The NO BAN Act upholds our nation’s principles of religious freedom and our moral obligation to welcome.” 

March 5 update: The Farm Workforce Modernization Act, passed by the House last year but never given a hearing in the Senate, was reintroduced. The legislation would provide a pathway to legal residence and citizenship for migrant farm workers, while also streamlining the visa program for farms and providing protection for workers. It would also mandate use of a revamped E-Verify system.

About Mary Turck

News Day, written by Mary Turck, analyzes, summarizes, links to, and comments on reports from news media around the world, with particular attention to immigration, education, and journalism. Fragments, also written by Mary Turck, has fiction, poetry and some creative non-fiction. Mary Turck edited TC Daily Planet, www.tcdailyplanet.net, from 2007-2014, and edited the award-winning Connection to the Americas and AMERICAS.ORG, in its pre-2008 version. She is also a recovering attorney and the author of many books for young people (and a few for adults), mostly focusing on historical and social issues.
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