Back in June, 2020, then presidential candidate Joe Biden promised that if elected, "...on day one" he would introduce legislation to provide a roadmap to citizenship for 11 million undocumented immigrants. He pledged to keep families together, protect Dreamers and TPS recipients, increase asylum numbers, and modernize the immigration system.
Turns out that this was not just empty campaign bravado. Biden and his Vice President, Kamala Harris, have already met with immigration advocates and policy advisers to share an "aggressive agenda" aimed at transforming U.S. immigration policy through a combination of legislation and executive orders. Biden says the legislation will be introduced "immediately."
Biden's proposed changes to immigration laws give hope
to immigrants in temporary or undocumented status.
It will be a huge undertaking to undo the previous administration's last four years of punitive actions against immigrants, but based on comments from Biden, Harris and others, Inauguration Day 2021 will usher in a more compassionate, modern era of immigration policy. As more details emerge, I will keep you updated through our blog here at Armstrong Law Offices PLLC. Here's what we're hearing thus far:
Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA). On June 15, 2012, after it was clear that the Congress could not agree on immigration reform legislation, former President Barack Obama issued an Executive Order ushering in the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program. The intent was (and still is) to defer removal action and thus protect the undocumented immigrants who were brought into the United States before their 16th birthday. Anyone who meets specific eligibility requirements can still apply for initial or renewed DACA status. Unfortunately, DACA status is temporary and must be renewed every two years. The DACA recipient is lawfully present in the United States but is not granted a permanent, lawful status. And the program itself has come under legal challenges and appeals, causing confusion and fear. Immigration lawyers and advocates have called for a permanent solution.
Biden and Harris have made it known that Dreamers are a high priority. In a Univision interview, Harris said that DACA protection will be expanded, and that the new administration will "...recognize and thank the more than 200,000 dreamers who have been fundamental workers during the Covid-19 pandemic." Significantly, she said that DACA recipients and TPS holders will be automatically eligible for lawful permanent resident status (green cards) and a path to citizenship.
Once the legislation debuts, it will no doubt face immediate opposition in the Congress. The hope is that there can be a bipartisan resolution that provides permanent immigration status to dreamers who are now in an uncertain, deferred limbo. Regardless, anyone who is eligible but has not yet applied for DACA should do so now, and those who are in DACA status should make sure that they remain in status. With close to 650,000 people already in the DACA program, if a new green card program is introduced, there will be a very long line of applicants. The time to start gathering documentation is now.
Temporary Protected Status (TPS) for Venezuela and other countries. Another campaign
pledge that Biden is expected to keep is to either issue an Executive Order or support legislation to give Temporary Protected Status (TPS) to Venezuelan citizens who are seeking protection in the United States. Unlike the previous administration, which sought to phase out TPS, Biden is assuring current TPS holders that he will not only maintain their protection, but also include them in legislation that will contain a provision for lawful permanent resident status (green cards).
Similar to the uncertainty that DACA recipients face, TPS holders also are under constant fear that their protection will be taken away. This has been especially true during the Trump years. As its name implies, TPS is temporary and renewable only as long as the United States deems that the foreign national cannot safely return to the home country. But Biden is giving TPS holders hope that change is coming. It is expected that Venezuela will be added to the list of countries currently designated for TPS: El Salvador, Haiti, Honduras, Nepal, Nicaragua, Somalia, Sudan, South Sudan, Syria and Yemen.
Harris, in the Univision interview, stated that TPS holders will be automatically eligible for lawful permanent resident status (green cards) and a path to citizenship as part of Biden's immigration initiatives. Adding the 400,000 TPS holders to the 650,000 DACA recipients, with more likely to be added, that's more than 1 million people potentially applying for green cards. Anyone who might be eligible should start gathering documents now so that they will be first in line should a new green card program be put in place in the future.
Pathway to a green card, then citizenship, for undocumented immigrants. No one really knows how many undocumented immigrants are living and working in the United States, although the figure 11 million is often used. Many of these men and women have been a part of their communities for decades, and their children are often American citizens. Both Biden and Harris have said privately and publicly that their immigration vision includes a shortened pathway to a green card and citizenship for millions of undocumented immigrants. "It's a smarter and much more humane way of approaching immigration," Harris told Univision.
What does this mean for me?
Many of Biden's changes to immigration policy are only in the proposal stage right now.
While some initiatives can be
accomplished through Executive Order, others have to be approved by Congress. The sad truth is that you have to go all the way back to Ronald Reagan's presidency for the last, true reform to immigration laws. For those who oppose any legislation that provides a pathway to legal status, this reform legislation, the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986 (IRCA), is still referred to as "blanket amnesty." But it was approved by a bipartisan vote in a Democratically-controlled Congress, and signed into law by a Republican president. So there is hope that the Congress, now with a Democratic majority in the U.S. House and (just barely) U.S. Senate, can pass immigration reform legislation that will be signed into law by the President.
Time will tell. But you can--and should-- get prepared now. For example:
If you don't know the date or place you entered the country, you need to get that information.
If you entered the country on a visa, but you've lost the I-94 arrival-departure record, you need a copy or other proof of lawful entry.
If you signed an application for immigration benefits, but you don't know if it was ever filed, approved or denied, you need to find out.
If you don't know whether your criminal record is clean, you need to get a copy.
If you have outstanding misdemeanor charges, such as driving without a license, you need to resolve this as soon as possible.
If you don't have a copy of your birth certificate, you need to get a copy if you can, or gather other proof if you can't.
This is just a short list. I will keep you updated through my blog after the Biden/Harris administration is sworn in. And if you think you may be eligible for an existing program, such as DACA or TPS, I encourage you to book an online consultation with me. During my 30 years of legal experience as a congressional counsel and a private immigration lawyer, I have seen many immigration reform proposals come and go. For the next two years, Democrats will control the Congress and the presidency. If ever there was a golden opportunity for Members of Congress to enact meaningful and needed changes to existing immigration law, it's now.