'The Moment for Action Is Now': Immigrant Advocates Rally Behind Biden's Path to Citizenship Bill

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Immigrant advocates rally in support of the Supreme Court's ruling in favor of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, in San Diego on June 18, 2020.  (Sandy Huffaker/AFP via Getty Images)

California immigrant advocacy groups, along with newly appointed Sen. Alex Padilla, are gearing up to try and push President Biden’s sweeping immigration reform bill through Congress – but the effort will face a tough road in the Senate, where power is evenly divided between Democrats and Republicans.

On his first day in office, Biden announced the outlines of a bill that would provide an accelerated path to citizenship for the nearly 11 million unauthorized immigrants in the country, a goal long held by immigrant rights advocates.

This week, a coalition of those groups, including several based in California, launched a major campaign to hold Biden’s feet to the fire and persuade Congress to pass broad-based legalization and refashion the nation’s immigration system to be more humane and welcoming. The We Are Home coalition announced a plan to spend upwards of $10 million on media and grassroots organizing in pursuit of those goals.

The groups represent farmworkers, domestic workers, Dreamers – young undocumented immigrants who grew up in the U.S. – and others. They are also pushing for the swift reversal of hundreds of former President Donald Trump’s restrictive policies, which they say fed a poisonous climate of hostility toward immigrants and their families, regardless of legal status. Within hours of being sworn in, Biden began issuing executive orders to revoke some of those measures.

“After four years of one attack on immigrants after another, to see the immediate action taken by the Biden-Harris administration ... is a really good starting point,” said Kamal Essaheb, deputy director of the National Immigration Law Center, a nonprofit based in Los Angeles and Washington, D.C., that’s a member of the coalition. “Now is the time to start turning the corner and projecting our values as a country.”


In addition to allowing unauthorized immigrants who pay taxes and pass criminal background checks to become citizens in eight years or less, Biden’s bill would also:

  • Reduce backlogs for legal immigration by ending per-country visa caps
  • Eliminate the "3- and 10-year bars" that block people who've lived in the U.S. illegally from reentering to become legal residents
  • Prioritize visas for foreign STEM graduates of U.S. universities
  • Target border enforcement on criminal organizations
  • Increase technology at the border and ports of entry
  • Restore discretion to immigration judges to reduce court backlogs
  • Address the roots of migration from Central America by investing in economic development and anti-corruption efforts there

The plan has special resonance in California, which is home to 1 in 4 of all the immigrants in the country, including roughly 2 million unauthorized immigrants.

That’s not lost on Padilla, a Democrat who was sworn in last Wednesday to fill the Senate seat vacated by Vice President Harris. Padilla often talks about his own parents, who came to California from Mexico in the 1960s in search of opportunity, but who often faced discrimination.

“No state has more at stake in these reforms than the state of California, just by the numbers,” he said recently. “We’re home to more immigrants, documented and undocumented, than any state in the nation.”

California Sen. Alex Padilla speaks during the Latino Inaugural 2021: Inheritance, Resilience and Promise event hosted by the Biden Inaugural Committee on Jan. 19, 2021. (Getty Images)

Early in January, shortly after Gov. Gavin Newsom tapped him for the Senate vacancy, Padilla reached out to California immigrant rights leaders for an early talk about how to roll back Trump’s punitive policies and offer unauthorized people the security of legal status and the chance to become full Americans.

The average undocumented immigrant has lived in the U.S. for 15 years, usually with no way to become a legal resident, according to estimates from the Pew Research Center. And advocates have been pushing for two decades to give them a path to citizenship.

Major immigration reform bills have been advanced repeatedly over the past 15 years, most with bipartisan support, and none have reached a president’s desk.

Those so-called comprehensive immigration reform bills combined a path to citizenship and an overhaul of the immigration system with steep increases in immigration enforcement, both at the borders and inside the country, something Republicans sought.

After four years in which Trump focused exclusively on enforcement, there's almost none of that in Biden's proposal. Some Republicans in the Senate are calling it a “mass amnesty.” And Sen. Robert Menendez, D-New Jersey, who will introduce the bill, acknowledges it is a starting point for negotiation.

But today, Congress is more polarized than ever. Though the House of Representatives is in Democratic control and has approved recent liberal immigration bills, in the Senate, the bill’s backers must overcome the filibuster rule, which would require 60 senators to bring the issue to a vote. Democrats have just 50 seats, plus a tie-breaking vote from Vice President Harris.

That’s leading Democrats and many immigrant advocates to strategize about other approaches.

A Path to Citizenship as Part of COVID-19 Relief?

Rather than invest everything in one big bill, some suggest breaking efforts toward a path to citizenship into smaller chunks, through bills like the American Dream and Promise Act for undocumented youth and people with temporary protected status, or a farmworker bill, both of which have already passed the House with bipartisan support.

Padilla and others are turning their focus to undocumented immigrants working in essential industries – including food production and health care – during the pandemic. They’re calling on the Biden administration to include a path to citizenship for some 5 million essential workers as part of the president’s $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief package.

“We have deemed so many of them as essential and we have an obligation to treat them as essential,” said Padilla. “It's not an 'either or.' We are pushing for the whole 11 million, but with the urgency of COVID-19 relief, it seems that there is a quick, easy way to get a good number of these folks covered and protected sooner rather than later.”

He added: "We have deemed so many of them essential and we have an obligation to treat them as essential ... History will remember them as American heroes."

The coronavirus relief bill, which could be debated as early as next week, is a golden opportunity, said Angelica Salas, executive director of the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights in Los Angeles.

“What we want to make sure that everybody understands is, you can't battle the pandemic and provide relief if essential immigrant undocumented workers are left out," she said. "So we want immediately for them to be included and legalized through this process."

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Including legalization in the COVID-19 relief bill is significant because Senate Democrats are already taking steps to use an arcane process called budget reconciliation that would allow them to pass the relief package with a simple majority.

Tom Jawetz, vice president for immigration policy at the Center for American Progress, a liberal Washington, D.C., think tank, believes the reconciliation process will be key.

“While we know for a fact the president does not approach these negotiations from the perspective of relying upon only Democratic votes to get relief to the public that they need, it is an important tool at the president's disposal,” Jawetz said. “It’s a technique that can be used to get big legislation done when it needs to get done.”

Jawetz said he and others have been consulting former Senate parliamentarians to understand how to include a tailored legalization program for essential workers in the COVID-19 bill in a way that would pass muster in the reconciliation process.

“We think there's a strong case to be made that it would comply with the rules,” he said. “The moment for decisive action is now. This is when we can make a really big impact.”

One factor that’s working in favor of Congress passing immigration reform: Polling shows 68% of Americans – including majorities of Republicans as well as Democrats – favor legalizing undocumented immigrants, and that support has grown markedly since Trump took office four years ago.