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Democrats to introduce bill with pathway to citizenship

A border official checks a passport at the border crossing between Tijuana and the USA.

Omar Martinez | picture alliance | Getty Images

Democrats in Congress are set to introduce a sweeping immigration bill backed by President Joe Biden Thursday.

On a call with reporters Wednesday evening, Biden administration officials previewed the legislation. According the officials, the proposed bill, among other provisions, would:

  • Establish an 8-year path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants who arrived in the U.S. by Jan. 1
  • Provide an expedited path to citizenship for farm workers and undocumented young people who arrived in the U.S. as children with temporary protected status under DACA
  • Replace the word “alien” with “non-citizen” in law
  • Raise the per-country caps on family and employment-based legal immigration numbers
  • Repeal the penalty that prohibits undocumented immigrants who leave the country from returning to the U.S. for between three to ten years
  • Expand transnational anti-drug task forces in Central America
  • Increase funding for technology at the southern border

The path to citizenship would give undocumented immigrants five years of provisional status, after which they can apply for a green card. Three years later, they can apply for citizenship.

DACA-protected undocumented immigrants and farm workers who can provide work history can skip the five years of provisional status and “go directly to a green card,” a senior administration official said on the call.

Lead sponsors Sen. Bob Menendez, D-N.J., and Rep. Linda Sanchez, D-Calif., are set to release the full text of the the U.S. Citizenship Act of 2021 Thursday.

The bill will reflect priorities outlined by the president in an executive order on his first day of office. Biden also signed an executive action terminating the state of emergency at the southern border and pausing border wall construction projects.

While Democrats hold thin majorities in both chambers of Congress, the legislation would require a minimum of 10 Republican votes to defeat a Senate filibuster.

Biden and Congress are turning their attention to infrastructure as the Covid relief bill heads toward completion, so it’s unclear how much the administration and Democrats will prioritize passing immigration reform.

When asked whether the president would support abolishing the Senate filibuster or using a budget reconciliation process that would only require a simple majority, Biden administration officials would not directly answer.

“It’s just too early to speculate about it now,” one White House official said. “We want to first defer to our sponsors of this bill about what’s possible and look to leadership on the Hill about how they want to move immigration.”

Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., who has sponsored previous bipartisan immigration legislation, including the Dream Act, said he doubts the feasibility of a comprehensive deal, but saw possibility in a narrower one that would trade a path to legalization for DACA-protected undocumented immigrants for more border security.

“The more people you legalize, the more things will be required to be given, so we’ll see. It starts a conversation,” Graham told NBC News. “You just can’t legalize one group without addressing the underlying broken immigration system. You just in incentivize more. So, a smaller deal may be possible.”

Congress has not passed a large, comprehensive immigration reform bill in decades. In 2013, a bipartisan bill passed in the Democratic-led Senate but was never considered in the Republican-controlled House.

At the time, conservative House Republicans opposed a broad pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants and were against comprehensive legislation, favoring a piecemeal approach that prioritized border security. Former Republican Speaker John Boehner did not bring the bill up for a vote.


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