Understanding the New U.S. Citizenship Act of 2021

So far, President Biden is keeping his promise to make immigration one of his biggest priorities upon entering office. In his first week in office, he signed four key documents to immediately undo some of the damage the Trump administration did to the country’s immigration policies.

These included:

  • a memorandum to the Attorney General, which protects the DACA program by encouraging him to take “all actions he deems appropriate, consistent with applicable law, to preserve and fortify DACA”.
  • a presidential proclamation overturning the Trump administration’s Executive Order 13780, more well known as the travel ban from a number of countries like Syria, Iran, Yemen, and many others.
  • an Executive Order reversing Executive Order 13768, the Trump administration’s order that cut federal funding to cities it deemed to be “sanctuary cities”.
  • another presidential proclamation ending the emergency status that enabled the Trump administration to divert funds from the Department of Defense for building a border wall with Mexico.

Behind the U.S. Citizenship Act of 2021

In one of his first actions as president, Biden sent to Congress a sweeping piece of legislation called the U.S. Citizenship Act of 2021. The bill proposes a number of key changes to immigration policies. Here is a summary of the most important parts. The bill asks Congress to:

  • Create an earned roadmap to citizenship for undocumented individuals. The bill is a radical departure from the policies of the Trump era, first and foremost:
    • Allowing undocumented individuals to apply for temporary legal status. Five years after obtaining this status, individuals will have the ability to apply for green cards, contingent on the passing of criminal background checks and verification of paying taxes.
    • More notably, certain classes of immigrants: Dreamers, TPS holders, and immigrant farmworkers, who meet specific requirements are eligible for green cards immediately under the legislation.
    • After three years, all green card holders who pass additional background checks and demonstrate knowledge of English and U.S. civics can apply to become citizens.
    • Important Dates: For the above rules to apply, applicants must have been physically present in the United States on or before January 1, 2021. One exception is those deported on or after January 20, 2017 who were physically present for at least three years prior to removal. In those cases, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) may waive the presence requirement for family unity and other humanitarian purposes.
  • Keep families together. The bill reforms the family-based immigration system by clearing backlogs, recapturing unused visas, eliminating lengthy wait times, and increasing per-country visa caps.
    • It also eliminates the so-called “3 and 10-year bars,” and other provisions that keep families apart. Right now, many individuals who might benefit from family-based immigration policies are caught in a catch-22: they must technically leave the United States in order to apply for this status, but being here illegally and then departing also bars them from re-entry subject to certain conditions. These rules would be corrected under the new bill.
    • The bill also seeks to lower discrimination by explicitly including permanent partnerships and eliminating discrimination facing LGBTQ+ families.
    • Notably, the bill also allows immigrants with approved family-sponsorship petitions to join family in the United States on a temporary basis while they wait for green cards to become available, which could reunite families much sooner.
  • Embrace diversity. The bill includes the NO BAN Act that prohibits discrimination based on religion and limits presidential authority to issue future bans. This will help to reverse the notorious “Muslim Ban” and prevent any similar bans in the future.
  • Promote immigrant and refugee integration and citizenship. The bill provides new funding to state and local governments, private organizations, educational institutions, community-based organizations, and not-for-profit organizations to expand programs to promote integration and inclusion, increase English-language instruction, and provide assistance to individuals seeking to become citizens.
  • Embrace the role of immigrants in our economy. This bill clears employment-based visa backlogs, recaptures unused visas, reduces lengthy wait times, and eliminates per-country visa caps. This includes:
    • Making it easier for graduates of U.S. universities with advanced STEM degrees to stay in the United States.
    • Improves access to green cards for workers in lower-wage sectors.
    • Eliminates other unnecessary hurdles for employment-based green cards.
    • Provides dependents of H-1B visa holders work authorization, and children are prevented from “aging out” of the system.
    • Protect workers from exploitation and improve the employment verification process. Workers who suffer serious labor violations and cooperate with worker protection agencies will be granted greater access to U visa relief.
    • There are also changes to border controls and addressing the root causes of migration by working with other countries, particularly in Central and South America. 

It is important to note how radically this bill tries to change the conversation around immigration. For an example of this core difference: the bill recognizes America as a nation of immigrants by changing the word “alien” to “noncitizen” in all immigration law going forward.

What are the bill’s odds of success? It’s hard to say. So far, it has not been introduced as a bill in either house. Though we now have the benefit of a Democrat-led Congress in both chambers, strong Republican opposition will be a problem — if any Senator filibusters the bill (which Republican are likely to do), it will then need 60 votes in the Senate to be passed, which seems unlikely. The Democrats currently have 50 seats, and there are 2 more seats that are independent.

It is more likely that the U.S. Citizenship Act of 2021 will be modified and maybe even broken up into several smaller pieces of legislation that are easier to pass separately. Stay tuned to our newsletter and blog for more details on how things are developing!