House aid package contains key immigration measures

Measure would ease waits for green cards for immigrant physicians battling COVID-19 in the US

Sen. Richard Durbin, D-Ill., cleans his phone  before the start of a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing Tuesday. The latest coronavirus relief bill unveiled by House Democrats contains a provision he has pushed to ease immigration visas for nurses and doctors. (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call)
Sen. Richard Durbin, D-Ill., cleans his phone before the start of a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing Tuesday. The latest coronavirus relief bill unveiled by House Democrats contains a provision he has pushed to ease immigration visas for nurses and doctors. (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call)
Posted May 12, 2020 at 4:44pm

The latest coronavirus relief package unveiled Tuesday by House Democrats contains a handful of immigration-related provisions very likely to become flashpoints during negotiations. A couple, however, may have a fighting chance at bipartisan support.

The bill contains provisions allowing immigrant physicians engaged in U.S. work related to COVID-19 to bypass a long wait for a green card. The bill would also expedite processing of temporary work visas and immigrant visas for health care workers applying for jobs from abroad.

This provision has the same intent as a bipartisan Senate bill that would authorize up to 40,000 immigrant visas, unused in previous years, for release to nurses and doctors. That bill was introduced in late April by Sen. Richard J. Durbin, D-Ill., a longtime stalwart of immigration-related legislation, and Sens. David Perdue, R-Ga., Todd Young, R-Ind., and Chris Coons, D-Del.

The House pandemic aid bill also includes language requiring the Department of Homeland Security to figure out how to administer naturalization ceremonies remotely — something that House Democrats in the New American Caucus formally requested last week in a letter to Speaker Nancy Pelosi. Moderate Republicans who have expressed support for legal immigration may also support this provision.

Since March 18, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, an agency within DHS, has suspended all in-person services, including naturalization ceremonies, citing fears of spreading COVID-19. Around 60,000 ceremonies take place around the country each month, and the oath taken during these ceremonies is the last step legally required for someone to transition from permanent resident to U.S. citizen.

While the suspension officially stands until at least June 4, USCIS confirmed Tuesday to CQ Roll Call that it is conducting "small naturalization ceremonies, both administrative and judicial, where proper precautions can occur prior to June 3."

"USCIS will not and has not conducted public ceremonies where stay-at-home orders remain in effect," the agency spokesman, who declined to provide a name, said via email.

An estimated 860,000 people were scheduled to become U.S. citizens this year, according to an estimate by the National Partnership of New Americans, a coalition of state, federal and local organizations that helps naturalized citizens register to vote. USCIS processes around 66,000 naturalizations a month, and immigration advocates fear that hundreds of thousands of applicants may not become citizens this year in time to vote in the 2020 general election.

The USCIS spokesman told CQ Roll Call that "statutory language mandated by Congress contains certain requirements that are logistically difficult for USCIS to administer naturalization oaths virtually or telephonically."

The House coronavirus aid package would also temporarily extend filing and other deadlines for noncitizens who are in the United States on temporary work visas, immigrant visas, or who have other types of status and work authorization that may expire during the pandemic. It would also allow green cards that were left unused in fiscal 2020 to be given out in subsequent years.

Advocates, experts and lawyers have been pushing for such extensions, arguing that COVID-19 and the resulting economic crisis have made it overly burdensome for immigrants to meet filing deadlines and obtain the paperwork they may need. Some may also lose their legal status if they lose their jobs or are furloughed.

A provision in the House bill that is likely to see pushback from Republicans would award temporary protection from deportation — or "deferred action" with work authorization — to undocumented workers in industries deemed essential during the pandemic, such as first responders, health workers, and farm and food processing employees. The bill would shield their employers from being punished for certain immigration-related violations for a short period of time.

Another controversial measure in the bill is a restriction on punishing so-called sanctuary cities, local governments that limit police in helping federal immigration enforcement efforts.

Such cities have been a target for the Trump administration. Attorneys general who have served under Trump have aggressively tried to target such jurisdictions, threatening to withdraw federal funding if they fail to actively help immigration enforcement. So far, only one in several court decisions has favored the administration on this front.

Finally, the package includes language similar to a recent bill introduced by Rep. Pramila Jayapal, D-Wash., and Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J., which requires the release of detainees in the custody of Immigration and Customs Enforcement who are at risk for the coronavirus and are not deemed to be a threat to public safety.

ICE currently holds 29,000 immigrants. As of May 11, the agency had tested 1,686 detainees for COVID-19, and 889 have tested positive.