by Edwin Quinabo
For well over two decades, a comprehensive immigration reform bill has failed to pass.
From George W. Bush to Barack Obama, both chambers of Congress, both political parties, big business, labor unions, security-minded conservatives to pro-immigration liberals — all have argued features of what should be included in a single comprehensive immigration bill, but failed to reach a compromise to adopt one as law.
The last sweeping immigration bill came in 1986 when President Ronald Reagan granted amnesty to three million undocumented immigrants (mostly Central Americans). Ironically, that move would prove to be invaluable to the Republican party in unforeseen ways as these immigrants, mostly Cubans, made Florida home and became ardent Republicans. Since then, each four years these immigrants and their descendants (still mostly Republicans) have been the potential swing vote to each presidential race, given Florida’s weighty electoral prize.
The reality is immigrants can influence elections, and this is arguably the “real” reason why immigration reform keeps getting shelved. President Donald Trump knew this – the powerful influence immigrants have. His xenophobia is actually in response to this fact, which led him to take immigrant scapegoating to levels never seen before.
In today’s hostile political environment towards immigrants, President Joe Biden and Congress must now work magic in getting the recently introduced U.S. Citizenship Act of 2021 passed. It’s a tall order to get this latest comprehensive immigration reform bill approved, even with the perfect storm of a Democrat-controlled Congress and presidency.
Before hunkering down on his U.S. Citizenship Act of 2021, Biden moved quickly, literally in his first hours in office to pass several executive orders that reversed Trump’s executive orders on immigration. Biden struck down the controversial “zero tolerance” policy that separated parents and children at the border. He formed a Task Force to reunite families separated at the border under “zero tolerance,” giving urgency to reconnecting the lost children with their parents.
Biden also ordered a halt to the construction of the southern border wall. He signed an executive order to continue the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program that grants work permits and protection from deportation to people brought illegally to the US as children. DACA was ended by Trump, but the Supreme Court gave a new lease to the program.
Biden also ordered a review by executive order of Trump’s “public charge rule” that prevents immigrants on public assistance from receiving a green card. A policy that immigration advocates called discriminatory against poor immigrants.
He revoked Trump’s Travel Ban that targeted a majority of Muslim countries.
Biden said, “There’s a lot of talk, with good reason, about the number of executive orders that I signed. I’m not making new law, I’m eliminating bad policy.
“The last president of the United States issued executive orders I felt were very counterproductive to our security, counterproductive to who we are as a country, particularly in the area of immigration.”
Immigrant advocates say while Biden’s executive orders have immediate impact and signals a sharp shift in policies from the previous administration, comprehensive reform must be passed in Congress for long-term, major changes. Laws enacted by Congress is harder to undo than policies set via executive order.
Sen. Mazie Hirono said of Biden’s executive orders, “Through some of his first actions as President, Joe Biden has demonstrated that his immigration policies will represent a meaningful departure from the mindless cruelty of the Trump administration. President Biden’s commitment to advocating for immigrant communities can be seen in his executive actions to rescind the Muslim Ban and strengthen the DACA program.”
The Hawaii senator said as a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, she looks forward to working with the President to restore fairness and justice to the nation’s immigration system.
“Through some of his first actions as President, Joe Biden has demonstrated that his immigration policies will represent a meaningful departure from the mindless cruelty of the Trump administration. President Biden’s commitment to advocating for immigrant communities can be seen in his executive actions to rescind the Muslim Ban and strengthen the DACA program. It can also be seen in his comprehensive immigration reform proposal that provides a pathway to citizenship, restores humanity in our asylum process, and reinforces family unity as a guiding principle in our immigration system. As a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, I look forward to working with President Biden and his administration to restore fairness and justice to our immigration system.”Senator Mazie Hirono
Highlights of the U.S. Citizenship Act Of 2021 (Comprehensive Immigration Reform Bill)
On Biden’s comprehensive reform, Sen. Hirono said, “his comprehensive immigration reform proposal provides a pathway to citizenship, restores humanity in our asylum process, and reinforces family unity as a guiding principle in our immigration system.”
The thrust of the bill is centered on looking at ways to streamline the naturalization process, make it easier, faster and more accessible by eliminating barriers and reducing processing times.
Sen. Bob Menendez of New Jersey, a chief backer of Biden’s legislation, said “We have an economic and moral imperative to pass big, bold and inclusive immigration reform — reform that leaves no one behind.”
On family-based immigration, the bill proposes clearing backlogs and increasing per-country visa caps to get more families reunited faster. It also eliminates the so-called “3 and 10-year bars,” and other provisions that keep families apart. Biden’s family-based immigration goal is to keep families together. His policies are counter to Trump’s proposal that sought to get rid of family-based immigration entirely and implementing a merit-based system in its place.
The bill plans to expand family case management programs and immigration judges to address backlog. Trump proposed to cut immigration judges.
Filipino veterans (who fought alongside the US during WWII) and their families, widows and children could receive immigration protections.Foreign graduates of US universities who specialize in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Medicine) fields could have improved access to green cards to stay and work in the US.
Immigrant farmworkers could get a quick boost and get green cards immediately.
Other groups to receive enhanced immigration protections include foreign nationals assisting US troops, asylum seekers, immigrants with approved family-sponsorship positions to join their family in the US on a temporary basis, Temporary Protected Status holders.
The bill changes the word “alien” to “noncitizens” in immigration laws.
Called embracing diversity, a section of the bill includes the NO BAN Act that prohibits discrimination based on religion and limits presidential authority to issue future bans. The bill also increases Diversity Visas to 80,000 from 55,000.
As a means to promote immigrant 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.
To grow the economy, the bill clears employment-based visa backlogs, recaptures unused visas, reduces lengthy wait times, and eliminates per-country visa caps.
Pathway To Citizenship For Undocumented
A very popular proposal and viewed as the centerpiece of the bill, Biden wants to offer a pathway to citizenship for undocumented individuals that include DREAMERS, TPS holders, and immigrant farmworkers currently in the US. The proposal is estimated to affect 11 million undocumented.
Undocumented individuals would need to apply for temporary legal status, with the ability to apply for green cards after five years if they pass criminal and national security background checks and pay their taxes. Applicants must be physically present in the United States on or before January 1, 2021.
Major polls show that providing an eight-year-long path to legalization for the 11 million undocumented in country is favored by a majority of American voters.
New “Multiple Trains” Strategy, Piecemeal Approach
Frank Sharry, executive director of America’s Voice, said “We want 11 million people legalized. That is our North Star. But we can’t come home empty-handed. We’re not going to adopt an all or nothing approach. We have to achieve a breakthrough.”
As an advocate working on immigration issues in DC for more than 30 years, Sharry joins a growing number of advocates who are looking at a more practical approach to getting at least parts of immigration reform passed.
Instead of shooting for a single comprehensive bill that has failed two decades and counting, some advocates want to work on prioritizing features of the bill, get them passed through piecemeal, individually.
They are calling this a “multiple trains” strategy.
For example, the first goal could be to work on DREAMERS getting citizenship. Then the next goal could be to work on farm workers. After that, it could be undocumented “essential workers” who worked the front lines during the coronavirus pandemic.
Advocates are looking at moving forward separate bills, instead of one, all-or-nothing bill.
Kerri Talbot, the deputy director of the Immigration Hub, said “We’re always open to having a broader discussion, but absent that, we want to move forward with pieces that can pass.”
A massive system overhaul could be unrealistic as hard negotiations have shown to fail time after time, advocates say. Immigration advocates say the history of failure should be driving a change in strategy.
US Rep. Linda Sanchez of California, another chief backer of Biden’s comprehensive reform bill, said abandoning the broader effort before it has even begun would be a mistake.
Lawmakers pushing the comprehensive bill approach say it’s too early to settle for piecemeal legislations.Jen Psaki, the White House press secretary, said Biden was pushing for comprehensive changes because “they all need to be addressed — that’s why he proposed them together.”
Parliamentary Tactic, Push Through Reconciliation, A Simple Majority
Getting a comprehensive immigration bill to pass the House isn’t a problem, policy analysts predict. The challenge will come in the US Senate where there is a Senate rule called the filibuster, that requires a supermajority of 60 votes to pass most major legislation. This means to get the U.S Citizenship Act of 2021 approved in the Senate, Senate Majority leader Chuck Schumer must get all Democrat senators to sign on their approval and flip at least 10 Republicans.
Parliamentarians say there is a loophole to circumvent the filibuster. Through a process called reconciliation under Senate rules, legislation that affects the nation’s budget can be passed with only a simple majority (51 votes). But under reconciliation, still, all Democrats must be united. One stray vote could mean failure, considering that the 51st vote to break a deadlock would be Vice President Kamala Harris.
Immigration proposals could qualify as a reconciliation matter because newly legalized US residents have an impact on tax revenues and government benefits, both that would meet the “impacting” national budget requirement.
Lorella Praeli, president of Community Change Action, is an advocate of both the “multiple trains strategy” or piecemeal and using reconciliation. She favors enacting smaller components of the legislation at the same time of pushing the larger comprehensive effort.
“You’re talking about a fight that we’ve had for over three decades at this point,” said Praeli. “I’m not interested in a dance. I’m committed to seeing this through and delivering on concrete changes.”
Political analysts say it is more difficult to get Republicans on board with immigration reform today because many of those Republican senators who agreed with it in the past have already left politics like Jeff Flake, Dean Heller and others. While others who have supported it in the past who are still in the Senate like Marco Rubio and Lindsey Graham, they have moved far right, in the Trump zone.
Laura Tagalicud grew up in a Hilo farm. Her parents are papaya farmworkers who emigrated from Ilocos Sur, Philippines.
“It’s nice to know that farmworkers are a part of the immigration reform, that they could get a green card faster. Farming is very hard work. And we do so much to keep our people fed,” said Tagalicud.
Many of the US farm workers are visa-holding immigrants. They have been working through the pandemic as essential workers. Even before the pandemic, for decades foreign farm workers have been crucial to keeping American farms in business and keeping food on the tables of American households.
But because immigration reform has been on hold for decades, many farm workers on visas were not able to stay in the US even after working years in the US.
“My parents eventually owned their own farm. But many of these foreign farmers on visas work for American companies and get paid little. They send money back to their families and eventually have to leave. I hope they get a chance to stay and bring over their families instead of going back to their countries after giving to the US the best of their working years. It’s only fair,” said Tagalicud.
Soledad Alquero, 83, of Wahiawa is an immigrant who came to Hawaii in her 30s in the 1970s. She said she’s just pleased to see the shift in attitude towards immigrants in this new administration, compared to the unwelcoming vibe of the past four years.
“Biden’s immediate action to make good on his campaign promises to reverse Trump’s hardline policies says a lot to me about where Biden’s heart is on immigration. Millions of immigrants could benefit from an overhaul of the system.
“It’s good that they will try to make family reunification faster,” said Alquero.
In the early 1980s, Alquero petitioned for her sister Anathalia to come to the US. She isn’t considered immediate family like a child or parent so Alquero says she waited years before Anathalia was able to come over in the 1990s. By then Anathalia was already in her mid-60s.
“We spent a few great years together in Hawaii. But she went back home shortly after arriving because she was already in her late years and wanted to be with her children. I wish we had more time together,” said Alquero.
Florante Domingo of Kalihi said he wants reform to address security and maintain the current system of legal entry. “I want our borders to be secure, but I also support plans that improve the legal process. Immigration experts say overhauling the legal process to make it easier and faster actually deters illegal immigration. Fixing the legal process helps to fix the problem of illegal entry, to a degree.
Domingo is a second-generation Fil-Am. He says he supports “controlled, legal immigration.”
With nearly one in five Hawaii residents being an immigrant, and one in seven residents having at least one immigrant parent, comprehensive immigration reform is an issue of high value. Many Filipinos – that comprise the largest group of immigrants to Hawaii at 45% — will be tracking updates closely as changes to immigration could impact their own families.