fb-pixel Skip to main content

Biden takes on a long-deferred overhaul of immigration

The president’s proposed legislation would make urgently needed, sweeping changes.

Jose Cabrera tapes a message, "Citizenship Relief Recovery," on the door of his car among a caravan of cars at an immigration campaign rally, in Los Angeles last month. More than 40 organizations launched a legalization and justice campaign in an effort to push the incoming Biden-Harris administration as well as congressional leaders to pass and enact a humane immigration reform bill in the next two years.FREDERIC J. BROWN/AFP via Getty Images

As one of their first acts, President Biden and Vice President Harris are proposing a groundbreaking, far-reaching bill that would transform America’s immigration system, providing millions of immigrants with a roadmap to legal status, restoring asylum programs and raising refugee caps, dedicating billions of dollars in foreign aid for Central American countries to address drivers of migration, and reforming the visa system to prioritize family reunification.

If it becomes law, the proposal would represent the biggest overhaul of the American immigration system since the Reagan administration. The reforms are long overdue, and this is a critical moment to pursue them. The pandemic has made clear that America runs on immigrant workers, many with no legal status — think of the janitors and farmworkers, or caregivers working at the front lines of our health care system. An estimated three out of four immigrants in the workforce who lack legal status are essential workers. Biden’s immigration bill would fully embrace them and recognize their contributions by offering them a path to citizenship.


Moreover, Biden’s bill will help boost and rebuild the economy as the country recovers from the pandemic. Allowing workers to come in from the shadows would allow them to fully unleash their economic potential when it’s needed most.

Biden’s US Citizenship Act of 2021 would immediately grant temporary legal status for five years to many of the 10.4 million immigrants estimated to live in the United States without authorization. After meeting certain conditions, such as paying taxes and passing a background check, they could apply for a green card. Three years after that, they would be eligible for citizenship. Immigrants who were brought to the United States as children, people from disaster-stricken areas who have been allowed to live in the United States under the Temporary Protected Status program, and immigrant farmworkers could apply for a green card immediately. In Massachusetts, the bill would benefit roughly a quarter-million residents, including those without legal status and those with temporary protections.


The proposal would make it easier for foreigners to move here legally by reforming the family-based immigration system, clearing visa-processing backlogs, and increasing per-country visa limits. It would also fund a four-year, $4 billion initiative in Central America that would target corruption, violence, and poverty in the beleaguered region. The bill would also eliminate the word “alien” in immigration laws, using “noncitizen” instead. It may seem like a minor change, but in reality signals a monumental shift in tone.

In addition to the broad-ranging bill, Biden plans to sign a series of executive orders and issue agency memorandums on immigration, some of which he signed Wednesday, such as orders undoing the ban on travel from several mostly Muslim nations, revoking Trump’s attempt to exclude undocumented immigrants from the census count, and establishing a 100-day pause on most deportations. The administration is also launching “themed days” during the first 10 days of Biden’s presidency, each centered around specific policy areas to roll back key Trump actions and directives; the topic of immigration will have its day on Jan. 29.

Biden is relying on US Representative Linda Sánchez, of California, to introduce the bill in the House, and Senator Bob Menendez, of New Jersey, will be taking the lead in the Senate, where it will probably need 10 Republican votes to overcome anti-immigrant sentiment within the Trumpist wing of the GOP.


“There are too many relying on this reform for us to fail,” Sánchez said in a statement. Senator Chuck Schumer of New York, the new majority leader, promised to prioritize the immigration bill. It’s “one of the most important things a Democratic Congress can do,” Schumer said Tuesday on the Senate floor.

They’re right. Legislation that overhauls immigration at this massive and bold level has been decades in the making. But the pandemic has given reform a particular urgency. It’s never been more clear that the US immigration system is anachronistic and does not meet the economic needs of the country. For years, immigrants have been convenient political pawns. Now lawmakers have an opportunity to recognize their humanity and their vital economic contribution in a nation that has been, and continues to be, built by immigrants.

Editorials represent the views of the Boston Globe Editorial Board. Follow us on Twitter at @GlobeOpinion.