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Immigration Activists Welcome Reform Bill But Warn of Long Fight Ahead

Migrant justice activists are celebrating the bill’s introduction but worry the legislative process will weaken it.

Protesters march through the streets of New York City on February 6, 2021.

Migrant justice activists and organizations welcomed the introduction of the U.S. Citizenship Act of 2021 this week but are warning that the bill faces a long and uphill battle before becoming law.

At the center of the comprehensive bill, which was introduced by Sen. Bob Menendez and Rep. Linda Sánchez, is a path to citizenship for nearly 11 million undocumented immigrants living in the United States. The bill also includes key provisions that migrant justice activists have been demanding for decades.

In a statement the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights (CHIRLA) expressed enthusiastic support for the bill.

“We have found the path to citizenship we have been seeking all these years. Now we embark on a new journey, along that path. We believe a breakthrough is possible this year, with this bill,” said Angelica Salas, CHIRLA’s executive director, in the statement.

Jacinta González, a senior campaign organizer with Mijente, said in a Facebook Live presentation that the bill is about “creating political space to have conversations” on the need for a path to citizenship and that it “sets the tone” of the conversation.

González was, however, careful about raising people’s expectations about the bill, warning that it will be “very hard for it to pass.”

Although Democrats control both houses of Congress, they lack the super-majority in the Senate needed to pass the bill without Republican support. Some Republican lawmakers already expressed their hostility to the proposals first floated by President Biden in the early days of his administration.

The bill, which is viewed as an aspirational statement on immigration by Democrats, would be the most significant reform to the U.S. immigration system since 1986.

“That was the last time our undocumented brothers and sisters stepped out of the shadows. For the last 35 years, they contributed as taxpayers, provided their labor, formed families and, most recently during this pandemic, kept working so that so many of us could be safe and protected,” said Salas.

Critically, the bill provides a path to citizenship for a wide gamut of people, unlike other proposals that focused on specific segments of the immigrant community in the United States. Biden administration officials are keen to see this comprehensive bill passed, though a senior official did not rule out a piecemeal approach.

According to the fact sheet on the bill, undocumented people who were in the U.S. on or before January 1, 2021, will be able to apply for green cards after five years if they pass background checks and pay their taxes, if the bill becomes law. Meanwhile those with Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) and Temporary Protected Status (TPS) could apply for green cards immediately. After three years, all green card holders would be able to apply for citizenship provided they comply with further regulations.

González credited the work and advocacy of migrant justice organizations for ensuring the bill also included long-held demands such as the elimination of the 3- and 10-year entry bars on people who have been present in the U.S. without authorization for more than six months. She also praised the fact that the bill does not include language that would push for more enforcement and deportations, as previous reform proposals have done in order to win support from Republicans.

Despite the fact that Democrats will need some Republican votes to pass the bill in the upper chamber, Sen. Bob Menendez indicated that in this instance Democrats would be less willing to accommodate demands from certain segments of the Republican Party. According to a summary by Vox, Menendez said in a press call that Democrats had previously “capitulated too quickly to fringe voices who have refused to accept the humanity and contributions of immigrants to our country and dismiss everything … as amnesty.”

González did however warn that despite efforts by the bill’s authors to include as many people as possible, some Democrats have already started working to insert provisions that would exclude people with criminal records. She called those efforts “dangerous.”

“We have to push back. We have to say that those are unacceptable and we won’t stand for the criminalization of our communities,” said González.

González raised another concern about the bill: It calls for more surveillance on the border, which has been criticized by migrant justice activists for giving more tools to enforcement agencies.

Mijente has been campaigning against the expansion of surveillance by tech companies who have a financial incentive in seeing the use of so-called “smart” solutions on the border. González said they expect to continue to fight technology companies that are pushing for more surveillance on the border.

“Having additional surveillance on the border is going to hurt all of us,” said González.

As Candice Bernd wrote for Truthout earlier this month, “Instead of a steel barrier, Biden’s legislative proposal would deploy even more technology to the border, accelerating the creation of a ‘smart’ wall.”

ICE Instructions

In addition to the introduction of the U.S. Citizenship Act of 2021, the Biden administration issued a memo Thursday via the Department of Homeland Security detailing government policy concerning deportation priorities and interior immigration enforcement.

In a statement, the American Civil Liberties Union came out strongly against the contents of the memo for allowing Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents significant discretion that the organization says will result in “biased profiling and harmful immigration consequences for Black and Brown people.”

“The memo is a disappointing step backward from the Biden administration’s earlier commitments to fully break from the harmful deportation policies of both the Trump and Obama presidencies,” said Naureen Shah, senior advocacy and policy counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union. “While the Biden administration rightly acknowledges that immigrants are our family members, our coworkers, and our neighbors, for now it has chosen to continue giving ICE officers significant discretion to conduct operations that harm our communities and tear families apart.”

Mijente’s González also criticized the discretion provided by the memo and specifically pointed to the use of the term “aggravated felony,” which, she argued, gives too much leeway to agents, calling it an “awful” term that was invented by politicians to criminalize people.

Nonetheless González said the memo does lay out some rules that can later be cited when fighting cases against ICE. For example, she said, the memo provides “clear instructions” about deportations to ICE agents. It also seeks to put certain limits on raids, explicitly excluding the possibility of “collateral” arrests, and offers detailed instructions on what ICE must report.

After pushing for years to arrive at this moment, organizations such as Mijente and CHIRLA are describing the proposed bill as a historic opportunity to finally secure some measure of justice for millions of families and say they will focus on ensuring the bill becomes law.

“The Citizenship Act of 2021 must pass the House and the Senate, and receive a signature from our president. Immigrant families have waited too long and been promised citizenship too often, only to see that promise come up short each and every time,” said Salas.

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