Amid the brutal winter, countless communities across the U.S. are suffering, particularly immigrants. Immigration detention facilities continue to lack adequate heat and water to protect against the weather and pandemic, leaving detainees vulnerable to freezing nights and COVID-19. In particular, the Juvenile Detention Center in Fort Worth, Texas, was discovered to have lied about their facility operating with heat and water after local Texans who tried to donate blankets were turned away. Despite the grave reality of the current situation, the neglectful treatment of U.S. immigrants is not an isolated issue. Abuse against immigrants has persisted for many years in the American citizenship and asylum processes at the federal and local level. Federally-enforceable progressive legislation is the first step to reforming the injustices observed at the level of state and local governments.
During President Joe Biden’s campaign, he made numerous promises, such as a 100-day pause on deportations and reversing Trump-era asylum-seeking regulations, to reform the U.S. immigration and citizenship process. However, they have yet to come into fruition. With Biden in office for 42 days now, over 20,000 deportations have been reported. On Feb. 18, House Democrats introduced Biden’s U.S. Citizenship Act of 2021, one of the most extensive attempts at immigration since 1986. At the heart of the bill is an eight-year pathway to citizenship for migrants who arrived before Jan. 1. Also included are increased opportunities for obtaining visas and green cards, initiatives to end family separation and protection against worker exploitation. Many human rights and immigration advocates have praised the bill, but the hope of implementation is faced with the main obstacle of passing in the Senate.
Without any Republican incentives to vote on the bill and little indication of Democrat compromise, the future of the Citizenship Act is bleak. Since the bill was proposed by House Democrats, it lacks critical immigration policies sought by Republicans, who are keen to add increased border protection and to delegate more power to immigration enforcement operations. For the legislation to pass in the Senate, 10 Republican votes are required, but there are currently zero prospective senator “yays.” Without 10 votes, a senate filibuster by Republicans is likely, and Democrats have yet to propose a concrete outline for how they plan to ensure the bill passes.
To combat the introduction of a filibuster or death of the bill altogether, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) suggested on Feb. 18 the potential implementation of a “piecemeal” approach. The idea is to break the Act into a series of refined bills instead of one piece being passed at once. By creating multiple smaller bills with content that is easier to digest and debate, compromise between Democrats and Republicans becomes more likely. However, the problem with a piecemeal approach is that the most reformative and left-leaning policies are likely to be abandoned first in the pursuit of compromise.
Republican senators have emphasized on how policies of mass amnesty like the eight-year citizenship pathway and increased access to green cards and visas are too progressive to consider passing. As distinct plans for compromise have yet to be outlined, these policies are likely to die away at the hands of a deal made in the Senate. Yet actionable items like these are the ones with the most potential to systemically reform the immigration process, which is what makes the lack of transparency in the bill’s status most concerning. We cannot let Biden’s administration turn back to the status quo of feeble immigration advocacy, though.
It is crucial for Congress to establish a clear methodology to pass the Citizenship Act. If compromise is necessary to move forward, the bill’s progressive nature must be preserved as much as possible. If legislators involved understand the potential relief at stake within the bill, they must also recognize the need for urgency in its progression through Congress. Immigration populations have been suffering under the brute of negligent administrations for years. Legislators have only finally demonstrated an interest in supporting the vulnerable population against injustice.
While one piece of legislation will not undo the structural violence immigrants have experienced throughout U.S. history, the Citizenship Act is the most accessible starting point. If Congress wants to prove their ability to institute reform, now is their chance to prove it.
Braden White (24C) is from Charlotte, North Carolina.