Biden's Immigration Reform Bill Could Change Everything... Or Not Pass At All. Here's What You Need To Know.
On Thursday, Democratic lawmakers unveiled sweeping legislation backed by President Biden that aims to dramatically reform the immigration system in the U.S.
At the center of the bill: An eight-year path to citizenship for the roughly 11 million immigrants who are living in the U.S. without legal status, along with other reforms that would affect the legal immigration process.
Certain groups of immigrants, including those currently living and working legally in the U.S. under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) and Temporary Protected Status programs, along with farmworkers, would become eligible for permanent legal status right away if the bill becomes law.
Others would have to wait under a provisional status for five years before they are eligible for green cards, then another three years before they can apply for citizenship - eight years total.
Will any of these provisions actually become law? That's the big question.
In Los Angeles, the implications are enormous and the questions are many. Who would be affected here, and how? And what needs to happen for a proposal like this to actually pass?
LAist/KPCC spoke with some of our most trusted immigration experts this week: Marissa Montes, the director of Loyola Immigrant Justice Clinic; Karthick Ramakrishnan, professor of public policy and political science at UC Riverside Morrison; and Louis DeSipio, professor of political science and Chicano-Latino Studies at UC Irvine.
Here's what we learned.
HOW DOES THE BILL AFFECT DACA RECIPIENTS?
This bill would open up a pathway of residency and citizenship for anyone with DACA immediately. It even includes people who may have qualified under Obama's DAPA proposal (which didn't pass), Marissa Montes, the director of Loyola Immigrant Justice Clinic, explained.
If the bill passes, DACA recipients would be able to skip provisional status and become U.S. residents right away. Then, after three years they could apply for citizenship.
WHAT ABOUT THOSE WITH TEMPORARY PROTECTED STATUS (TPS)?
Folks with TPS (this applies to people who had to flee their home countries because due to extreme violence, war or abuse) will also be able to skiip the temporary residency requirement and just go straight into legal permanent resident status, Montes told us.
Another change? In opening the pathway to residency, people with TPS and DACA status both have limited ability to travel.
"It's going to also give them the possibility to be reunited with their family members abroad, and also just add stability to their communities," Montes said.
WHAT ARE THE OTHER BIG CHANGES PROPOSED IN THE BILL?
Expanding U visa protections: The U visa provides protection for victims of crimes, Montes explains, something that the immigrant community is fairly vulnerable and susceptible to.
Biden's bill, she says, actually expands U visa protections to include individuals who might be victims of workplace violations, like wage theft or sexual harassment.
Focus on family reunification: "Biden wants to eliminate the backlogs that currently exists in the family petitioning process," Montes says.
The new bill would allow families that have mixed status — think a dad without legal status and a mom who is a citizen — travel. That means many people will suddently have an opportunity to reunite with family members, who may have been struck abroad for years, Montes explains.
HOW DOES THIS BILL COMPARE TO PAST ATTEMPTS AT IMMIGRATION REFORM?
This bill doesn't have as many of the enforcement provisions that Republicans typically have insisted upon, Karthick Ramakrishnan told us (He's a professor of public policy and political science at UC Riverside).
That enforcment stuff, which was included in the 2013 bipartisan bill made a lot of immigrant advocates very uncomfortable. That bill, for instance, promised to crackdown on employers who hire workers with out authorization. It also had provisions for strengthening border security. But this bill is different.
"I think in this case, you're seeing the Democratic Party, both in Congress as well as in the White House, trying a different tack," Ramakrishnan explained. "Not loading up the bill with a lot of enforcement provisions...trying to keep it a little bit more clean this time."
Ramakrishnan warns though that this could change if Senators decide to amend the bill and add more enforcement provisions.
WHAT ARE SOME POTENTIAL DOWNSIDES OF THIS BILL?
Ramakrishnan wrote an L.A. Times op-ed last week making a case for a more piecemeal approach to immigration reform.
His argument is that sometimes comprehensive reform becomes so complicated and so big that it's actually harder to pass.
"What we find instead, from states like California, New York, Illinois, Connecticut, Maryland, and so many others, is that if you continue to chip away at it, you can take it piece by piece incrementally, and really end up building immigration reform over a couple of decades," Ramakrishnan told us.
He says that's something you might not be able to achieve "when you try to cram everything into one bill."
It's possible that Biden's bill could fall victim to the too much, too big curse that Ramakrishnan is talking about.
Montes says she appreciates the fact that Biden has gotten to immigration policy so early in his presidency, but she says, "I would really encourage him to be a little bit more bold," specifically in the treatment of immigrants at the border "and what's currently occurring with the Migrant Protection Protocols."
HOW HOPEFUL SHOULD IMMIGRANTS BE?
As the director of a legal clinic, Marissa Montes says she's been inundated with requests for consultations since Biden became President. She says the change in leadership has given people in the immigrant community a lot of hope. But she doesn't want anyone to be too surprised or dissapointed if things change.
"Something that I tell the community all the time is that this is only a proposal," Montes explained. "This is Biden's idea. At the end of the day ,it's really the legislature that has control over immigration law, and passing immigration reform. So what's coming forward under the Biden proposal may actually look very different by the time that makes it to the legislature."
The takeaway? If you're an immigrant without legal status, by all means stay optimistic, but don't start making longterm plans yet.
HOW LIKELY IS THIS BILL TO ACTUALLY BECOME LAW IN ITS CURRENT FORM?
"I think in its current form? Almost a zero chance," Louis DeSipio told us - he's a professor of political science and Chicano-Latino Studies at UC Irvine.
Previous attempts at sweeping immigration reform bills fell flat in Congress during both the Obama and Bush administrations; a 2013 bill passed in the Senate, but the Republican majority refused to take it up in the House.
This bill faces equally long odds: Democrats now have the House majority, but the legislation would need at least 10 Republican supporters in the Senate to pass.
The bill's current from could be strategic, though.
"The administration chose to go big and bold as a starting point," DeSipio says. "And that allows plenty of room for compromise."
It's also possible that the bill doesn't include enfocement strategies (which is quite rare, DeSipio says) intentionally - leaving it out in the first draft might give Democrats more leeway to bargain with Republicans, who will likely want to add more boder patrol, punishments for violating rules, etc.
"I think the administration has signaled that they're willing to look at different pieces of the bill, as long as they get what the core of what they want," DeSipio explained, "which is a more streamlined legal immigration system, and a way to address the large number of undocumented immigrants who have been present in the United States for a long, long time."
HOW DID IT COME TO THIS?
Comprehensive immigration reform is extremely difficult to pass because it's become such a partisan issue. Louis DeSipio says that's because of two things: the Tea Party and Donald Trump.
"The Tea Party movement galvanized the Republican base against immigration reform," DeSipio says, which made it harder for Obama to gain support for the 2013 bill.
"Donald Trump also, you know, staked his presidential campaign and his presidency on antagonism towards immigrants, and I think inflamed that segment of the Republican base," DeSipio says.
But establishment Republicans might be willing to compromise with Biden, he thinks.
"To the degree that it still exists, that sort of old Republican economic elite sees the value in immigration," DeSipio says. "I think would be allies with President Biden in a reform bill."
He added a heavy caveat though: "Not this one, but a reform bill."
"Certainly there are a number of Republicans in Congress who philosophically oppose immigration. They probably can't be swayed," DeSipio says, "But remember the goal is not the perfect bill, but 16 votes in the Senate."
He thinks this will be a good test of Biden's strength as a negotiator. He'll have to find things that Republicans might be able to support, and perhaps scale back "some of the very ambitious goals" in this first draft.
LAist's Gina Pollack contributed to this report.
LISTEN TO THE FULL CONVERSATION WITH OUR EXPERTS ON TAKE TWO:
WE LOVE TO ANSWER YOUR QUESTIONS