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Introduction: Biden’s U.S. Citizenship Act and the Politics of Immigration Reform
Major immigration reform to address the status of an estimated 11 million undocumented people living in the country has long been one of most contentious—and seemingly unattainable—items on the U.S. public agenda. Nearly all significant policy innovations in U.S. politics face formidable structural veto-points, cross-cutting interest group pressures, and deep partisan divides. Yet comprehensive immigration reform has proven especially difficult to achieve over time, despite wide agreement that the existing immigration system is flawed and in need of a drastic overhaul. For decades, congressional efforts to enact broad policy changes for the nation’s undocumented population have followed a tortured path of false starts, prolonged negotiation, and frustrating stalemate. As a result of legislative inertia, immigration governance over the past quarter century has been driven by unilateral executive action, state and local regulation, and judicial oversight. At the grassroots level, congressional inaction on comprehensive reform has also fortified a durable caste system that marginalizes undocumented individuals and undermines basic democratic norms and principles.
Undaunted by the political quagmires presented by this issue, the Biden administration made immigration policy a top priority during its first 100 days. Three weeks before his inauguration, President-elect Joe Biden announced that immigration reform was an urgent matter on par with the coronavirus, economic recovery, racial justice, and climate change. On Biden’s first day in office, the new administration unveiled legislative plans for legalizing most of the country’s 11 million unauthorized residents and issued 17 executive actions, including measures to preserve and expand the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, to rescind harsh deportation rules, and to provide a pause on most deportations from the U.S. interior. By mid-February, President Biden’s allies in Congress introduced his ambitious reform bill, the U.S. Citizenship Act, the centerpiece of which is a pathway to citizenship for nearly all of the country’s undocumented population. These blueprints promised the most sweeping overhaul of the nation’s immigration policies in generations, calling for “big, bold, inclusive immigration reform” that “leaves no one behind,” including immigrants without legal status. As he vigorously championed expansive legalization plans, Biden told reporters that immigration is an “irrefutable source of our strength” and “essential to who we are as a nation.” Biden’s rhetoric and policy goals were a dramatic break from the form and substance of the Trump presidency, which regularly used nativist appeals to fire up his rightwing base and sought to deport millions of undocumented individuals. Biden’s early brand of immigration activism was also a striking departure from the Obama administration, which expanded deportations and other enforcement efforts during its first term and chose not to propose immigration reform legislation when Democrats controlled both the House and Senate in its first two years.
Eschewing the usual formula of pairing legalization with new enforcement measures, Biden’s U.S. Citizenship Act spotlights two pathways to citizenship for undocumented immigrants. The first path offers immediate green cards and a three-year track to citizenship for so-called “Dreamers” (those who arrived in the United States as children), undocumented farmworkers, and people with temporary protected status—those who cannot return home due to wars or natural disasters. The second path also allows virtually all other unauthorized immigrants in the country to apply for citizenship after eight years if they pay taxes and pass background checks. Other provisions in the bill include economic aid and other assistance to address the root causes of migration out of Central America, as well as increases in the number of annual visas issued in the employment-based, family-based, and diversity categories. The bill’s congressional sponsors, Senator Bob Menendez (D-NJ) and Representative Linda Sanchez (D-CA), explained that they were “going big on immigration reform” by advancing an “all-of-the- above strategy” for legalizing the vast majority of the country’s undocumented residents.
While Republican critics in Congress called Biden’s immigration plan a “nonstarter” and an unacceptable “blanket amnesty,” immigrant rights advocates and Democratic progressives praised the new president for “leaning in pretty hard on this topic and moving in sync with us and being so closely aligned.” At the same time, both the White House and congressional Democratic leaders have acknowledged that their razor-thin majorities in the House and Senate mean that reform will be all but impossible without at least some Republican buy-in and votes. Reformers have also coalesced around a targeted strategy of pursuing smaller immigration bills rather than a massive package, elevating specific measures that are popular and likely to win bipartisan support. In particular, they have focused on an April deadline for immigration bills that were passed last year—such as protections for undocumented “Dreamers” and a farmworker modernization reform—that could be brought to the floor without lengthy hearings.
As the Biden administration, Congress, interest groups, and rival activists gear up for a new round of immigration reform politics, it is useful to recall past efforts to adopt legislation addressing the marginal status of millions of undocumented immigrants in the United States. The last major overhaul of national immigration policy affecting unauthorized residents was a bipartisan law passed thirty-five years ago—the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986 (IRCA). Since then, comprehensive reform efforts were launched and failed in 2001, 2006, 2007, and 2013. Immigration policymaking in these decades was not stuck in neutral, however. During the 1990s and 2000s, a number of laws focusing on border control and interior enforcement were enacted, while visa reform and legalization proposals were blocked. Taken together, these past attempts at immigration reform capture the rival interests and values unleashed by unauthorized immigration that make the formation of majority coalitions in Congress a tall order. National policymakers are well aware of the enormous challenges faced by earlier immigration reformers. False starts, grueling negotiations, and unappealing compromises have been the overwhelming norm, at least during the past quarter century. Past reform campaigns have also encouraged pitched battles both within and between each major party. In addition to these recurrent patterns, past reform efforts also illuminate significant developments that have made policymaking more arduous over time, such as increased partisan polarization and the growth of movement activism on both sides of this issue. Unforeseen crises also have upended legislative plans. Many lessons from previous immigration reform battles remain powerful for assessing today’s political environment, providing a window into the possibilities and parameters of future policy innovation. The last comprehensive legislation addressing undocumented immigrants—IRCA in 1986—provides a helpful place to start.