As you've probably heard, President Biden has proposed a comprehensive immigration reform bill, called the U.S. Citizenship Act of 2021. What does this proposal mean for asylum seekers? Who is included? When--if ever--will it go into effect? We'll discuss those questions here. Spoiler alert: The answer to each question is "I don't know."

The first thing to know is that the bill is not yet public. All we have is a summary. Assuming the Biden Administration is being truthful (and I'm willing to grant them the benefit of the doubt, at least for Mr. Biden's first week in office), a bill was sent to Congress on day one of the new Administration. Only a select few Congress people have the text of the bill, including New Jersey Senator Bob Menendez, who plans to introduce the bill in the Senate. Eventually.

This begs the question: What is a bill? You can learn about that in this delightful School House Rock video from my youth, but essentially, a bill is a proposed law. There is a long and messy process before it becomes a law (see the video), and it is certainly possible that a given bill will never become a law (again, see the video). So for now, while the Biden Administration has proposed some significant and beneficial changes to the immigration law, we will have to wait to see whether the bill gets through Congress, and how it looks if it ever becomes a law.

So what is in this immigration bill? Based on the public summary, here are the main proposals that could affect asylum applicants--
  • "Undocumented individuals" will be eligible for temporary status, and later a Green Card and U.S. citizenship. Certain "undocumented" people--those with TPS, DACA, and farmworkers--will have a faster path to citizenship. Whether asylum seekers are included in the definition of "undocumented," the summary does not say. If they are not included, this could mean that people with no status who arrived in the U.S. prior to January 1, 2021 will obtain lawful status long before asylum seekers. This seems pretty unfair. If asylum seekers are included in the definition of "undocumented individual," that would be more fair, but potentially would leave some asylum seekers in limbo (for example, those who need to reunite with family members or who need a Refugee Travel Document).
  • The bill would make family-based immigration faster and would eliminate the 3/10 year bar. Asylum seekers would benefit from this provision if they have a family member who could sponsor them. Asylum seekers who are subject to the 3/10 year bar--which blocks people who have been unlawfully present in the country from returning to the U.S. after they leave--might also benefit if they seek to obtain a Green Card by leaving the United States and consular processing (certain people are not eligible to obtain a Green Card in the U.S. and must leave the country and apply overseas). My sense is that these proposals won't help many asylum seekers, but some may benefit based on family relationships or employment sponsorship.
  • The bill provides more funding for integrating refugees and immigrants, including asylees, into our community. This includes assistance with education, employment, and English language.
  • There are many problems at the U.S. Southern border, including an overwhelming number of asylum applicants. The new bill proposes to "enhance the ability to process asylum seekers" entering at the U.S.-Mexico border. What this means is not clear, but presumably, it would be better than the humanitarian disaster that we have now. One concern is that moving Asylum Officers to the border means that fewer will be available to process affirmative asylum cases, and this could further exacerbate the backlog.
  • In order to reduce the number of people coming to the border, the bill provides funds to address "underlying causes of migration," such as corruption, violence, and poverty. If root causes could be effectively addressed, and if fewer Central Americans sought refuge in the U.S., that would free up resources to handle the backlog at the Asylum Office and in Immigration Court. While this seems like a noble idea and worth a try, it's hard to believe we can make enough of an impact to significantly affect migration in the near future.
  • The bill would increase funding for Immigration Courts, improve training for judges, better utilize technology, and reduce the court backlog. The bill also proposes to increase fairness by giving judges more authority to manage their case loads and grant discretionary relief. All this would be terrific and would help reduce the Immigration Court backlog, which currently stands at almost 1.3 million cases.
  • The bill would eliminate the one-year asylum filing deadline, which was meant to reduce fraud, but--as far as I can tell--arbitrarily blocks legitimate asylum seekers from obtaining protection. It would also expand protection for foreign nationals who assist U.S. troops.
  • Finally, and not least of all, the bill would change the language of the law. Instead of referring to "aliens," the law would refer to "noncitizens." Perhaps this is a small thing, but I think it represents a shift in attitude, which is important as we move towards modernizing and humanizing our immigration system.

All this is merely a starting point. How the bill will look after it moves through Congress, no one knows. There will be opportunities in the coming weeks and months to lobby Congress in order to improve the bill, and I will try to write about that when I know more. You can bet that people who oppose immigration will be speaking to their representatives, and it is important for advocates and immigrants to get involved as well.

Before we wrap up, I should note that the proposed bill is not the only way that the Biden Administration will make changes to our immigration system. The Trump Administration issued a blizzard of executive orders, regulations, agency memos, and Board of Immigration Appeals/Attorney General decisions that affected asylum applicants and immigrants. Such changes are not as profound or permanent as changes to the law (such as the proposed bill), but they can have a significant effect on how the law is implemented. We can expect similar executive action from the new Administration, though I imagine some of that will take months (or longer) to implement.

The U.S. Citizenship Act of 2021 would improve and modernize our immigration system, but it's not perfect, and we have a long way to go before it--or something similar--becomes law. Once we have the actual text of the bill, we will know more, particularly about how it will (or will not) benefit asylum seekers. Despite the challenges ahead, I think we should allow ourselves a moment of joy--this bill is a big step in the right direction, and that is a very positive change from where we were just a short time ago.

Originally posted on the Asylumist: