Hill Democrats unveil immigration bill backed by White House

Democrats acknowledge it will be tough battle to pass through Congress, but 'we won’t know until we try'

Immigrant supporters celebrate news of Joe Biden's presidential victory on Nov. 7 at Black Lives Matter Plaza in Washington.   (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Immigrant supporters celebrate news of Joe Biden's presidential victory on Nov. 7 at Black Lives Matter Plaza in Washington. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Posted February 18, 2021 at 9:20am, Updated at 2:00pm

President Joe Biden’s promised comprehensive immigration legislation hit the Hill on Thursday, but Democrats cautioned that the legislation represents the president’s “vision” for the system and not necessarily a bipartisan package.

“It’s our vision of what immigration reform should look like. And it’s a bill we can all be proud of,” Sen. Bob Menendez of New Jersey, who is introducing the bill in the Senate, said at a virtual press conference.

The 353-page draft bill would mark the first drastic overhaul of the U.S. immigration system in years.

It would include a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants, including so-called Dreamers brought to the U.S. as children, ease the green card process for families and eliminate a rule requiring foreign citizens to apply for asylum within one year of entering the U.S., among other sweeping changes.

But Menendez acknowledged passing such a bill is “not going to be easy, and we recognize that.” Democrats hold just a slim majority in the Senate, and would need the support of at least 10 Republicans for the bill to move forward.

“I know that many are thinking, does this bill have any chance of passing the Senate with 60 votes? And the answer is, we won’t know until we try,” Menendez said. 

He also signaled that other paths to pass immigration protections could be included in a budget reconciliation package, which could pass with a straight majority. 

“While it would be a question of first impression in terms of reconciliation, I think there may be strong arguments to make it,” Menendez said. Democrats also indicated they would be willing to pass smaller standalone immigration bills where needed. 

Rep. Linda T. Sanchez, D-Calif, who is spearheading the House version of the bill, added that “all options are on the table.”

The newly unveiled legislation generally earned praise from the immigrant advocacy community, but Republicans gave a preview of their own opposition to some of its provisions. Florida Sen. Rick Scott, chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, slammed the bill Thursday as “amnesty and open borders.”

“This is an unserious proposal that reflects how far left Senate Democrats have gone on the issue of immigration. Senate Republicans will not hesitate to share with the American people exactly how the Democrats’ open borders, amnesty proposal will put their families at-risk,” Scott said in a statement.  

What's in the bill?

The legislation makes good on Biden’s campaign promise to put forth a comprehensive immigration bill with a fix for the estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants living in the U.S., including those brought to the U.S. as children by their parents.

Biden sent a proposal to Congress on his first day in office, and the final product tracks closely with the summary he sent at the time. 

The bill lays out an eight-year “earned path to citizenship” for undocumented immigrants who can pass a criminal background check, though waivers for convictions are available. 

Under the process, they could apply for “lawful prospective immigrant status,” which would allow them to work legally in the U.S. and travel internationally for short trips. After five years, they could become permanent residents.

The citizenship track would be expedited for immigrants currently protected by the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, and to those with Temporary Protected Status or Deferred Enforced Departure, which gives temporary immigration protections to individuals from countries in crisis. 

Migrant farm workers could also be eligible for that streamlined process if they worked at least 2,300 hours or 400 work days in the agricultural space during the preceding five-year period. 

Additionally, the bill would strike the word “alien” from the legal code, instead replacing it with “noncitizen,” and extend any immigration benefits to spouses to “permanent partners,” codifying protections for same-sex couples from countries where gay marriage is outlawed.

The bill also calls on the Secretary of State to implement a four-year strategy to address factors in Central America that drive migration, including corruption and trafficking. To discourage migrants from journeying to the U.S. border, the bill would also invest in increased refugee processing from Central America and call on government officials to launch an “information campaign” on the dangers of traveling to the U.S.-Mexico border.

In perhaps a nod to Republican demands for border security, the bill also outlines a “technology deployment plan” to increase “nonintrusive” equipment at the border.

The legal immigration process would also get a facelift under the proposed legislation, with an eye toward promoting family reunification in the green card process.

The bill would increase the current 7 percent per-country caps on family-based green cards — which have kept immigrants from populous countries like India and China waiting decades for visas to become available — to 20 percent, and eliminate those caps for employment-based green cards. 

In an effort to clear out those lengthy visa backlogs, the bill would also reclassify the spouses and minor children of legal permanent residents as “immediate relatives,” thus exempting them from the visa limits. 

Diversity visas, handed out each year in a lottery for foreigners from underrepresented nations, would increase from 55,000 annually to 80,000. 

On the employment side, the bill would create a pilot program allowing county or municipal officials to sponsor up to 10,000 foreign citizens annually for visas in occupations where there are shortages of U.S. workers. It would also give work authorization to the spouses of foreign workers on H-1B specialty occupation visas, codifying an Obama-era program that the Trump administration had threatened to end. 

Additionally, the legislation would greenlight potential future efforts by the Biden administration to prioritize high-skilled work visas to foreign professionals offered the highest salaries — a change the former Trump administration made in a midnight regulation, which the new administration delayed. 

'Different this time'

It’s been eight years since a viable comprehensive immigration bill was on the table, put forth in 2013 by the bipartisan group of senators known as the “Gang of Eight.” While that bill passed the Senate, it stalled in the Republican-controlled House. 

Referencing those prior failed efforts, Menendez said Thursday that the reason Congress has not yet passed a comprehensive immigration rewrite “is not because of a lack of will.”

“Time and time again, we have compromised too much and capitulated too quickly to fringe voices who have refused to recognize the humanity and contributions of immigrants to this country,” he said. 

But Democrats still remained optimistic when announcing the new bill Thursday. 

“It is different this time. I feel the excitement, I feel the sense of possibility. And it's just a matter of working with our colleagues to get it across the finish line,” Sanchez said. 

Unlike in 2013, there are “circumstances that make this possible” now, she explained, including a presidential administration willing to put “political muscle” behind the legislative effort. 

Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., welcomed the bill and said the measure would "not necessarily" need the reconciliation process to get through both chambers. 

"There are others that want to do piecemeal, and that may be a good approach, too,” she said. 

“How it happens through the legislative process remains to be seen, but it is a priority and we will be working on it,” Pelosi added. 

Referencing failed attempts to pass immigration bills during the Obama and Bush administrations, Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., stressed optimism: “Third time is a charm to pass major legislation.”

Lindsey McPherson contributed to this report.