The U.S. Citizenship Act of 2021 – Summary of President Biden’s Immigration Reform Bill

On his first day in office, President Biden took a series of actions to realize his vision for US immigration policy. Fulfilling one of his major campaign promises, President Biden introduced a comprehensive immigration reform bill, “The U.S. Citizenship Act of 2021.”

  • The legislation provides a pathway to permanent residence and citizenship for undocumented foreign nationals who were present in the United States on or before January 1, 2021 as well those holding DACA, TPS or H-2A status who meet the presence requirement.
  • The bill contains provisions aimed at clearing the employment-based and family-based green card backlogs to speed the green card process and keep families together during the application process.

The issue

On his first day in office, President Biden announced the highlights of a far-reaching plan to reform the U.S. immigration system. The bill features a path to permanent residence and citizenship for qualifying undocumented foreign nationals and those holding Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), Temporary Protected Status (TPS) and H-2A status; mechanisms to clear extensive green card backlogs in the employment-based and family-based programs; a streamlined process for graduates of U.S. university with advanced STEM degrees to obtain permanent residence; and an increase in Diversity Lottery Visas, among other provisions.

The White House has released a fact sheet providing an overview of its provisions, a summary of which follows:

Pathway to permanent residence and citizenship

  • The Biden legislation has provided a path for foreign nationals currently holding DACA, TPS or H-2A status to immediately apply for permanent residence if they were physically present in the United States on or before January 1, 2021. After receiving their green cards, qualifying foreign nationals could apply for citizenship after three years, if they meet security and background checks and demonstrate knowledge of English and U.S. civics.
  • Undocumented foreign nationals who were physically present in the United States on or before January 1, 2021 would be able to immediately apply for temporary legal status. After five years in temporary status, they would become eligible to apply for permanent residence if they have passed certain security and criminal checks and paid U.S. taxes. These foreign nationals could then apply for citizenship after three additional years if they pass additional background checks and demonstrate knowledge of English and U.S. civics. Special provisions are also included for certain individuals who were deported on or after January 20, 2017 but were physically present for at least three years prior to their removal for family unity and other humanitarian purposes.

Employment-based immigration reforms

  • The bill includes provisions to clear employment-based immigrant visa backlogs, recapture unused visas, reduce lengthy permanent residence wait times and eliminate per-country immigrant visa caps.
  • The bill includes the codification of H-4 employment authorization for spouses of H-1B workers, and children are prevented from “aging out” of the system.
  • The bill creates a pilot program that would stimulate regional economic development, give Departments of Homeland Security (DHS) the authority to adjust green cards based on macroeconomic conditions, and incentivize higher wages for nonimmigrant, high-skilled visas.
  • The Departments of Homeland Security and Labor would be required to make recommendations for improving the employment eligibility verification process and providing protections to foreign workers affected by labor violations. Workers who suffer serious labor violations and cooperate with worker protection agencies will be granted greater access to U visa relief.

Family-based immigration reforms

  • Family-based immigrant visa backlogs would be cleared through the recapture of unused visas from prior years, eliminate lengthy wait times and increase in per-country visa caps.
  • Immigration laws would be revised to explicitly allow LGBTQ+ petitioners to sponsor family members.
  • The bill allows foreign nationals with approved family-sponsored petitions to join family members in the United States while their green card applications are pending.

Other provisions

  • The annual number of green cards available under the Diversity Lottery Visa Program would increase from 55,000 to 80,000.
  • The three- and ten-year bars for individuals who have been unlawfully present in the United States would be eliminated.
  • The president would be barred from discriminating based on religion in issuing immigration bans.
  • Immigration enforcement would be enhanced through smart technologies.
  • Funding would be allocated for an inter-agency plan that would address the underlying causes of migration in the Central American region, including an increase in assistance to El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras, conditioned on their ability to reduce the corruption, violence and poverty that causes their citizens to flee.
  • Humanitarian program reforms would be implemented, including an elimination of the one-year deadline for filing an asylum claim.
  • Increases protections for U visa, T visa, and VAWA applicants and increases the U visa cap from 10,000 to 30,000.

Next Steps

The bill must pass both the House of Representatives and the Senate to become law. It is likely to face significant debate and amendments. The plan’s prospects for approval are currently unclear.

Murray Osorio is closely following the legislation and will provide updates as they occur.

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