A New Era of Immigration

An in-depth look at how President Biden plans to address the United State’s immigration crisis.


Nicole Perry

One of the pillars of former President Donald Trump’s four years in office was his crackdown on illegal immigration. It was heavily supported by his followers but drew massive pushback from his opposition. For four years, people watched the construction of his large and expensive wall along with the facilities on the border that were often accused of mass familial separation, poor sanitation, and over-crowded living conditions. After the controversy of Trump-era immigration policies, it is only to be expected that all eyes are on President Biden as he begins his own immigration reforms.

During the campaigning for the 2020 presidential election, immigration was a popular subject for debate. Biden spoke of massive changes to Trump’s policies, including tearing down the border wall and addressing concerns regarding the border facilities. Vice President Kamala Harris discussed that they planned to grant automatic green cards to Dreamers and those holding Temporary Protected Status (TPS) and shorten citizenship wait times. In address to Trump’s highly disputed policy of family separation, Biden has promised to implement a task force to reunite children and their families. Biden has already rescinded the travel ban that Trump initiated. But many families and individuals still are unable to enter the country due to a large backlog in the system, perfectly displaying that even where Biden has met his promises, there is still work to be done. 

On his first day in office, Biden proposed the U.S. Citizenship Act of 2021, which was introduced to the House of Representatives on February 18 by Representative Linda Sánchez (D-CA). The goal of the bill is to “provide an earned path to citizenship, to address the root causes of migration and responsibly manage the southern border, and to reform the immigrant visa system, and for other purposes.” It revises multiple components of the immigration process and seeks to reverse actions taken by Trump during his presidency.

The first thing the bill does is change the language used when talking about immigration. It pushes to replace the word “alien” in immigration laws with “noncitizen” which lacks negative connotations but retains the meaning. Part of the controversy about immigration laws stems from feelings regarding noncitizens and using dehumanizing and isolating terms like “alien” spread unwarranted hate towards them.

One of the most important things the bill addresses is the path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants already in the country. The proposed timeline is eight years with distinct steps and a clear chronology. If the bill is passed, undocumented immigrants would be able to obtain temporary legal status. After five years, these individuals could apply for green cards so long as they pass the background checks. Once a green card has been held for three years, if the holder passes additional background checks and displays knowledge of U.S. and English civics, they can apply for citizenship. The lengthy process for obtaining citizenship has been under constant criticism so by establishing this clear timeline, there is hope that the process can gain consistency and organization. This could give millions of undocumented immigrants the security of citizenship in the country.

Additionally, the bill addresses family immigration. Family-sponsored immigrants comprise two-thirds of the green card holders and so handling low efficacy in this branch is important. Under this bill, family members of immigrants can obtain temporary legal status while they wait for their green card requests to process. Currently, many people have to wait years for green cards under this method as they are coming from countries with high immigration rates. That’s why the bill increases the per-country visa limits. Only 7% of all annually issued green cards can go to people from the same country (meaning that people seeking to come from countries such as Mexico often face long wait times) but Biden wants to raise that number. The handling of familial immigration has remained a constant struggle as ethics and legality meet. But Biden is hopeful that these proposed strategies will be beneficial.

The Citizenship Act also reviews the current policies regarding employment-based immigration. Currently, the number of employment green cards is capped at 140,000 annually and Biden is aiming to increase that number. He also seeks to protect workers from exploitation. A commission will be created that includes several departments and civil rights organizations to make recommendations on how best to proceed to protect these people. H-1B holders are also covered. H-1Bs are for “high skilled workers” and to obtain this visa, you have to meet certain degree requirements. The bill provides work authorizations and particularly those with advanced STEM degrees are given easier pathways to remaining in the U.S. These advanced degrees can push technological advances in the U.S. and even workers without degrees are fueling the economy and strengthening the country.

Many of those that come to the country fall under the category of refugees, as opposed to immigrants, and those people are represented in the bill as well. Only 12,000 refugees were admitted in 2020 but Biden seeks to raise the limit to 62,500 in 2021 then to 125,000 in 2022. It’s important to know that 12,000 was a low for recent years, as it was the end of Trump’s administration, both  2016 and 2017 had higher numbers. Aside from these new limits, Biden seeks to improve the integration of these refugees. As many come from extremely different countries and cultures, it’s imperative to help them adjust to life in the U.S. This assistance includes helping them through the process of attaining citizenship status and providing funding to government and non-profit agencies that aim to improve their English skills and promote general inclusion. Minors from Central America are also being offered extra assistance in reunification with any family that lives in the U.S.

Equally as important as dealing with the current refugees is dealing with the reason why people were looking for refuge in the first place. The last main goal of the bill is to deal with the root causes that push people to leave their country and come to the U.S. While Biden wants to make the immigration process easier and give opportunities to those that arrive, he realistically cannot open the border to everyone who wishes to come forever. Therefore, a better and longer-term solution to large immigration numbers is to deal with the problem where it starts. This includes increased assistance to countries such as Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala so long as they actively work on reducing the corruption, poverty, and violence that pushes people to leave their homes. Designated Processing Centers are also being established throughout Central America. These centers will help the displaced persons in the area be registered for resettlement and other legal paths of migration. Some of these people will be brought to the U.S. while others will be brought to partner countries that have offered to give these people a safe haven.

Alongside these major themes, the U.S. Citizenship Act of 2021 does several other smaller things. It addresses diversity visas, which is a lottery process that selects applicants from countries with low immigration numbers in the last five years. The annual number of accepted applicants is currently 55,000 but Biden wants to raise that number to 80,000. Funding is also being relegated to the Department of Homeland Security and the Department of Health and Human Services to devise a standard of care for detained individuals and families. And even still, there is more that the bill discusses.

But it’s important to remember that the bill hasn’t yet passed. And while Biden has temporary Congressional power with Democratic majorities in both the House and Senate, that doesn’t guarantee that the bill will be passed. Alternatively, Biden has issued several executive orders addressing immigration that require no confirmation from Congress and can take immediate effect. One of the most significant of these executive orders establishes a task force with the sole purpose of reuniting families. Trump’s platform on immigration was a “zero tolerance” policy. It came down hard on all people crossing the border for illegal entry, including families. The separation of incredibly young and vulnerable children from their families raised a mass outcry in communities around the globe. This policy was officially undone in 2018 but families continued to be separated for other reasons and the issue was never truly resolved. However, Biden’s family reunification task force serves the goal of combatting that injustice. The task force will not only reunite the families that are already separated, but suggest large-scale amendments to our current methods and set up systems that prevent this in the future. Hopefully, the task force is successful but many steps need to be taken and while there is tentative optimism regarding its efficacy, there is also a healthy degree of skepticism.

In a similar vein of overturning some of Trump’s policies, Biden issued executive orders halting border wall construction and eliminating the Muslim and Africa ban. Construction of the border wall was progressing under the banner of a national emergency which Biden was quick to reverse. He also declared that funds and resources that were being funneled to the wall would be redirected to other projects. He stated that a wall across the Southern border was impractical and a poor solution. In regards to lifting the Muslim and Africa ban, he made it clear that the ban violated the nation’s principles of religious freedom and tolerance. Within the executive order, he also aimed to clear the backlog due to the influx of immigrants unable to acquire green cards and visas during the ban. In both cases, he maintained that although he would not be continuing the same “defense” strategies as Trump, he would continue to protect the country and its borders.

Biden’s protection has been extended to the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA). This was a program Trump targeted several times in his term but was unable to successfully terminate. It is centered around those who were brought to the country illegally in their youth. DACA allows them to stay in the country so long as they abide by the laws and continue school or enlist in the military. The protected people, typically referred to as Dreamers, can apply for temporary work permits that allow them to remain in the country into their adulthood. Biden’s executive order actively preserves this program and the Dreamers in it—a direct counter to Trump’s previous initiatives. 

Fundamental changes are being made as well. One executive order was passed with the specific intention of restoring faith in the immigration system and a second executive order was passed that shifts the priorities and goals of the immigration offices in the U.S. The orders establish Biden’s official stance towards immigration and border control as one that focuses on unity, humanity, and preserving connections with these places and people. The legal immigration process has always been notoriously slow and tedious, and many can’t even attempt it due to literacy barriers or distrust in the system. Biden aims to tear down these barriers that stop people from applying for citizenship through these executive orders.

However, there are already challenges. Trump has left a significant impact on citizens and many of his supporters still cling to his desire for anti-immigration legislation. The presidency is a job in which you can’t please everyone but there are stark divides after the partisan animosity and rampant claims of election fraud in the 2020 election. Although it is a common policy for presidents—including Trump—to overturn old executive orders, Biden has been spotlighted for his quick revocations of Trump’s policies. But Biden also faces challenges excluding this opposition. There is much pressure from within his own party to address these issues. Biden’s first few months in office have started on a positive note with the series of reforms, but his goals must be met before the reforms can be considered successful. The U.S. Citizenship Act still has to be passed for any of the policies it created to be useful. And although executive orders are more immediate, the execution of these orders is going to matter more than the intentions behind them. Biden’s term is also in its beginnings, his views and actions are subject to change as his term progresses. Continual action needs to be taken to address this crisis and even now, many believe that not enough has been done. The border facilities that were under such heavy criticism during Trump’s time remain active and Biden’s words are not going to assuage people’s fears until real results are shown.

It’s unreasonable to assume that Biden will be able to fix the U.S. immigration challenges during his presidency, but he can pave the way for those that will follow. The promises that Biden has made speak to a bright future. But before we can look ahead, we will have to wait with bated breath to see whether Biden rises to the challenge he’s given himself or if he falls flat. He’s already failed to meet the proposed new refugee cap numbers, maintaining Trump’s low numbers with a cap of 15,000 so far. Action still needs to be taken to combat the discrimination that immigrants and refugees face and the xenophobia that plagues both average Americans and political leaders. Additionally, the country cannot continue handling immigration in this divisive way. It’s unsustainable to have immigration reforms exist only in executive orders that are rescinded and released after every election. Although Biden’s slew of executive orders seeks to help immigrants, it is highly possible they will just be reversed when the next president is elected. Even if the next president shares the same views as Biden, more permanent legislature needs to be enacted to make a serious change. The partisan divide cannot continue, as it is detrimental to everyone involved. It is unlikely that a compromise between Republicans and Democrats will be reached regarding what the most effective immigration solution is, but the next four years could be critical in how the U.S. handles immigration for decades to come. So as his term progresses, all eyes are on President Biden to lead the way into a new age of American immigration.