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Biden's sweeping immigration reform is here. Photo: Evan Vucci/AP News

The U.S. Citizenship Act of 2021 is here, but it faces an uphill battle, and could be broken up

The White House has unveiled its sweeping immigration reform, but its path to full passage in its current form is murky.

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On Thursday, Feb. 18, the White House unveiled an immigration bill that would create an eight-year path to citizenship for millions of immigrants already in the country and provide a faster track for undocumented immigrants brought to the U.S. as children.

If passed, the U.S Citizenship Act of 2021 would include several changes. 

Individuals would be given temporary status for five years, with three years until they become citizens. Undocumented immigrants that arrived as children can go directly to get green cards if they meet the requirements.

To be eligible for the bill’s legalization plan, immigrants must have been living in the country before Jan. 1, 2021.

Biden’s proposed bill would also include a change in terminology from all U.S. immigration laws. The word “alien” would be removed and replaced with “noncitizen.” The purpose of the change, an administration official said, is “to better reflect the President’s values on immigration.” 

U.S. code currently defines “alien” as any person not a citizen or national of the United States, and officials in the past have pointed to the term’s prevalence in U.S laws to defend their choice of words. But the term “illegal alien” has long been criticized as a dehumanizing slur by immigrant rights advocates. 

The bill would provide funding for more immigration judges and expanded access to counseling. 

It authorizes funding for counseling to children and vulnerable individuals, and gets rid of the one-year limit on filing an asylum case. It would also repeal the ban on reentering the U.S. if an individual had previously been illegally residing in the country. 

The legislation also proposes creating a dedicated commission of employers, labor unions and civil rights advocates that would recommend new ways to improve worker verification, as well as increase protections for immigrants who blow the whistle on labor violations. 

Lastly, the U.S Citizenship Act of 2021 seeks to address the root causes of migration and work on reducing them. For instance, it would create safer and legal pathways for migration by establishing refugee processing in Central America.

The U.S. has not passed a major bill on citizenship since 1986, when legislation signed by Republican President Ronald Regan legalized nearly 3 million undocumented immigrants in the country.

Biden has described the bill as a way to re-imagine immigration in the U.S. after the Trump administration cracked down on it in a damaging way. His predecessor often referred to immigrants as criminals, but Biden’s White House calls them “neighbors, colleagues, parishioners, community leaders, friends and loved ones.” 

Administration officials have said that the legislation is an attempt by President Joe Biden to restart the conversation on immigration reform and claims to be open to negotiations.

Despite the potential positive change it could enact, the legislation faces an uphill battle in a narrowly-divided Congress, where House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has only a five-vote margin and Senate Democrats do not have the 60 votes needed to pass the measure with their party’s support alone.  

At the same time, there are multiple standalone bills in Congress targeting revisions of smaller pieces of the country’s immigration system.

For example, Sens. Lindsey Graham and Majority Whip Dick Durbin have reintroduced their DREAM Act, which would provide a pathway to citizenship for immigrants who came to the country as children. 

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