New US laws to give undocumented migrants a pathway to citizenship

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The Biden administration and congressional Democrats will formally unveil legislation on Thursday that would dramatically reshape the nation’s immigration laws and create a pathway to citizenship for the millions of undocumented immigrants in the United States.

After two decades of failing to advance meaningful immigration reform, Joe Biden and his allies on Capitol Hill are reviving the effort, which the new president has signalled will be a top domestic priority.

The proposal, based on the principles Biden outlined on his first day in office, will be introduced in the House by California congresswoman Linda Sánchez and in the Senate by New Jersey senator Bob Menendez, both Democrats with experience negotiating immigration legislation in Congress.

According to administration officials, eligible undocumented immigrants could apply for temporary legal status, which confers work permits and deportation relief. After five years, they could apply for a green card as part of an eight-year path to citizenship.

Some immigrants, including farmworkers, those with Temporary Protected Status and undocumented immigrants brought to the US as children, would be eligible to apply for green cards immediately, the officials said on a call with reporters on Wednesday night. After three years, they could apply to become US citizens.

To avoid a surge at the border, petitioners must have been in the US by 1 January 2021, and would have to pass all required criminal and national security checks as well as file taxes and pay application fees.

The proposal also attempts to streamline and expand the legal immigration system by raising the current caps on family and employer-based immigrant visas. Spouses, legal partners and children of permanent residents would be exempt from the current per-country caps, which administration officials said would dramatically reduce wait times. It would also explicitly include same-sex partners as immediate relatives.

A second pillar of the legislation is aimed at addressing the “root causes” of migration to the south-west border. To that end, the proposal would give the Biden administration $4bn over four years to fight corruption and reduce poverty in El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras.

It would also establish processing centers throughout the region, where people from Central America could apply for refugee status to come to the US legally. An official said the goal was to stem the flow of migrants to the US border, a journey that has become increasingly perilous.

Another aspect of the plan would repeal Clinton-era immigration rules that bar undocumented immigrants who leave the US from lawfully re-entering for three or 10 years, depending on how long they were unlawfully present in the country. It also changes the term “alien” – a word immigrants advocates have long denounced as dehumanizing – to “noncitizen”.

The overhaul faces an uphill climb, as Democrats hold only narrow majorities in the House and Senate. Passing the bill in the Senate would require support from at least 10 Republicans, a tall order on an issue over which the parties have only grown more divided in recent years. Under Trump, Republicans rallied around many of the former president’s hardline, isolationist policies that enraged Democrats and independents.

Republican support – or whether he would consider using a legislative maneuver,

On his first day in office, Biden set about undoing many of his predecessor’s immigration policies, including preserving DACA, an Obama-era program that shields immigrants brought to the US as children from deportation, halting construction on the border wall and repealing a ban on travelers from predominantly Muslim nations.

Though presidents have broad authority on immigration, there are limits to what can be achieved by executive action. This was thrown into sharp relief after Trump tried to end the DACA program, leaving hundreds of thousands of recipients in a state of limbo amid the ensuing legal battle.

At a CNN town hall on Tuesday, Biden reinforced his support for a sweeping immigration bill but also said he was open to a piecemeal approach that would pave a way for smaller, dedicated groups of immigrants to obtain citizenship “in the meantime.”

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