President Joseph R. Biden had a busy first day in office. Alongside a slew of executive orders and memorandums, he proposed new immigration legislation, celebrated by undocumented students and their advocates.
If passed, the U.S. Citizenship Act of 2021 would offer an eight-year pathway to citizenship for the 11 million undocumented immigrants currently in the U.S. It would allow them to apply for temporary legal status followed by a green card five years later. Three years after that, eligible green card holders could become citizens.
The legislation could also provide immediate access to green cards for recipients of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, which protects people brought to the U.S. as children from deportation and allows them to legally work in the country.
This is “very popular policy,” said Dr. Daniel I. Morales, associate professor of law and George A. Butler Research Professor at the University of Houston Law Center. “Most Americans believe long-term undocumented immigrants should be granted a right to stay.”
In addition to the proposed bill, Biden issued an executive order yesterday calling on the Department of Homeland Security to ensure protections for DACA recipients.
The order signals that preserving the DACA program is a priority for the executive branch, unlike the previous administration, which only reinstated DACA after ending the program in 2017 because of a Supreme Court order, Morales said.
Biden also came out with an executive order on advancing racial equity and support for underserved communities through the federal government, which calls for an equity assessment of federal agencies, among other measures.
Undocumented students make up 2% of all undergraduates in U.S. higher education, about 450,000 students, according to an April 2020 report by the Presidents’ Alliance on Higher Education and Immigration. It estimates about 216,000 of those students are eligible for DACA status.
For Ewaoluwa Ogundana, a political science major who graduated from Trinity Washington University this fall, Biden’s proposed immigration reforms offers a “sigh of relief” after tumultuous years under the Trump administration.
Born in Nigeria, Ogundana came to the U.S. at the age of four with her parents and then one-year-old brother. What she thought was a prolonged vacation bled into over 17 years. When she received DACA status in 2015, “it changed my life completely,” she said.
She could work; she didn’t have to ask her parents for money they didn’t have for her education. Two years later, that new reality felt precarious when the Trump administration rescinded the DACA program. While the Supreme Court blocked the decision this past summer, new restrictions were put on the program that July, requiring DACA recipients to renew their status annually and throwing out all pending applications, including Ogundana’s brother’s.
“It was kind of horrifying because at any given moment, you never knew what would happen because of the administration’s constant rhetoric toward immigrants,” she said. The uncertainty, combined with her brother’s rejected application, was “heartbreaking” to her. “It sucked. It was very, very painful.”
Now, with a path to citizenship possibly on the table, she feels like her goal to work in politics, as a policy advisor on immigration and education issues, could happen. Her brother could be able to work legally and her parents could get higher-paying jobs.
“We kind of went through the storm and we’re seeing the light at the end of the tunnel more and more with this new administration,” she said. If the legislation passes, “it’s going to have a huge positive impact on my family.”
With students like Ogundana and undocumented students in mind, higher education leaders came out in strong support of the proposed legislation.
“In preserving and fortifying the DACA program and calling on Congress to provide a path to citizenship, President Biden is making clear that he values the contributions of Dreamers and wants them to fully realize the American Dream,” wrote Association of Public and Land-grant Universities (APLU) President Peter McPherson in a statement.
Dr. David J. Skorton, president and CEO of the Association of American Medical Colleges, argued the legislation would protect the approximately 30,000 health care workers and support staff who rely on the DACA program.
He hopes his organization can work with the Biden-Harris administration and Congress “on a balanced approach to immigration and citizenship policy that attracts and retains individuals who want to contribute to improving the health of our nation and people everywhere,” Skorton wrote in a statement.
Advocates for undocumented immigrants and DACA recipients, like Harvard University junior Fernando Urbina, are steeling themselves to potentially help an influx of people file paperwork if new paths to citizenship open up. He’s the director of outreach at ImmigrantHelp.org, an organization that offers free guidance to immigrants filing forms for DACA renewal, green cards, citizenship and work and travel permits.
“I think we’re going to be a lot busier now than we were before, given the Biden administration is [working toward] opening up access to a lot of pathways toward citizenship, which is great,” Urbina said. “We want to be busy. We want as many people to get citizenship as possible.”
Morales, however, worries that the legislation won’t pass. He expects Republicans in the Senate to filibuster any comprehensive immigration legislation.
“My sense is, absent an elimination of the filibuster, I would not be hopeful for this moving forward …” he said. “People are already starting to question the wisdom of Biden starting with this. What we’ve seen is immigration did not used to be a priority for Republicans, but now that it’s a Trumpified party it now is. Even before the party’s Trumpification, the Senate routinely killed bills that had any legalization provisions.”
Morales thinks filibuster reform will be key to immigration reform, and while Biden could take a piece-meal approach, perhaps passing amnesty for DACA students alone, this would be a disappointment for organizers “determined to use the power of DACA recipients and their stories to benefit all immigrants.”
Ogundana emphasized that, even if the bill does pass, “there’s still so much underground work to do in terms of fixing the broken immigration system.”
“The end goal is permanent residency and being able to call ourselves United States citizens,” she said.
Sara Weissman can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.