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Biden aims to rebuild and expand legal immigration

President Biden spoke in the Cross Hall of the White House in Washington, D.C., on May 20, 2021.Yuri Gripas/Bloomberg

WASHINGTON — If President Joe Biden gets his way, it will soon be far easier to immigrate to the United States. There will be shorter, simpler forms and applicants will have to jump through fewer security hoops. Foreigners will have better opportunities to join their families and more chances to secure work visas.

A 46-page draft blueprint obtained by The New York Times maps out the Biden administration’s plans to significantly expand the legal immigration system, including methodically reversing the efforts to dismantle it by former President Donald Trump, who reduced the flow of foreign workers, families and refugees, erecting procedural barriers tougher to cross than his “big, beautiful wall.”


Because of Trump’s immigration policies, the average time it takes to approve employer-sponsored green cards has doubled. The backlog for citizenship applications is up 80% since 2014, to more than 900,000 cases. Approval for the U-visa program, which grants legal status for immigrants willing to help the police, has gone from five months to roughly five years.

In almost every case over the past four years, immigrating to the United States has become harder, more expensive and takes longer.

And while Biden made clear during his presidential campaign that he intended to undo much of his predecessor’s immigration legacy, the blueprint offers new details about how far-reaching the effort will be — not only rolling back Trump’s policies, but addressing backlogs and delays that plagued prior presidents.

The blueprint, dated May 3 and titled “D.H.S. Plan to Restore Trust in Our Legal Immigration System,” lists scores of initiatives intended to reopen the country to more immigrants, making good on the president’s promise to ensure America embraces its “character as a nation of opportunity and of welcome.”

“There are significant changes that need to be made to really open up all avenues of legal immigration,” said Felicia Escobar Carrillo, the chief of staff at U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, of the efforts to reverse Trump’s agenda. “In the same way that they took a broad-stroke approach to closing off avenues, I think we want to take a broad approach toward opening up the legal avenues that have always been available but that they tried to put roadblocks up on.”


Since taking office four months ago, Biden has struggled with a historic surge in migration by Central American children and teenagers that has prompted some Republicans to accuse the president of flinging open the nation’s borders to people trying to enter the country illegally, a charge the White House rejects.

In fact, Biden does want to open the country to more immigrants. His ambition, as reflected in the blueprint, is to rebuild and expand the opportunities for foreigners to enter the United States — but to do so legally.

Divided into seven sections, the document offers detailed policy proposals that would help more foreigners move to the United States, including high-skilled workers, trafficking victims, the families of Americans living abroad, American Indians born in Canada, refugees, asylum-seekers and farmworkers. Immigrants who apply online could pay less in fees or even secure a waiver in an attempt to “reduce barriers” to immigration. And regulations would be overhauled to “encourage full participation by immigrants in our civic life.”

Even with a more restrictive and slower immigration system, about 1 million people obtained green cards in 2019, the last full year before the pandemic. Most had been waiting for years. In the final year of the Obama administration, 1.2 million people received green cards.


But if Biden accomplishes everything in the document, he will have gone further than just reversing the downward trend. He will have significantly increased opportunities for foreigners around the globe to come to the United States, embracing robust immigration even as a divisive, decadeslong political debate continues to rage over such a policy.

Most of the changes could be put into practice without passage of Biden’s proposed overhaul of the nation’s immigration laws, which would provide a pathway to citizenship for millions of people living in the United States illegally but has stalled in a bitterly divided Congress. While surveys show that most Americans support increased immigration, many Republican voters have eagerly backed Trump’s more restrictive policies.

White House officials declined to comment directly on the Homeland Security Department’s blueprint, saying that such documents go through many drafts and that decisions about specific steps to address legal immigration remain in flux. But they said the president remained committed to significantly rolling back the restrictions imposed by his predecessor.

That effort will take time and has not yet caught the public’s attention like the surge of crossings at the southwest border. But conservative activists who have for years demanded lower levels of legal immigration are vowing a fight to stop Biden and extract a political price for his actions.

“They just want to shovel people in here,” said Kenneth T. Cuccinelli II, a former Virginia attorney general who served as the acting head of Citizenship and Immigration Services under Trump. “They are not running an immigration system for the benefit of America, and certainly not for the benefit of ordinary Americans. ”


Most research has shown that legal immigration to the United States has benefits for the country’s economy, especially at a time when the country’s population growth is slowing. But Cuccinelli and others who favor severe restrictions on immigration say it is obvious to them that letting foreigners compete for jobs — especially when the country is still recovering from an economic downturn like the one created by the pandemic — will hurt the prospects for American citizens.

“The No. 1 job for the immigration services is to make sure that immigration does not hurt Americans,” said Roy Beck, the founder of NumbersUSA, a group dedicated to far lower levels of legal immigration.

Motivated by that belief, Cuccinelli set in motion a transformation of the government’s legal immigration system during the Trump administration — changing his agency from one that confers benefits on foreigners into a “vetting agency,” in part by issuing numerous restrictions on offering asylum for immigrants and trying to raise fees.

The increased vetting, as well as travel restrictions imposed during the pandemic, helped contribute to the result the Trump administration had sought: The influx of immigrants slowed significantly, as winning legal approval to enter the United States became much harder.


With fewer immigrants coming through the pipeline, there has been less money to finance Citizenship and Immigration Services, which is supported almost entirely by fees paid by immigrants. Restoring the agency to full capacity is at the heart of Biden’s effort to expand legal immigration, according to the document and interviews with administration officials.

A central element of the blueprint is addressing backlogs in the immigration system.

The administration is planning to fast-track immigration applications by expanding virtual interviews and electronic filing, as well as limiting the requests for evidence from applicants. Biden has tapped Cass R. Sunstein, a former Obama administration official and legal scholar at Harvard Law School, to remake the immigration system so it is “more effective and less burdensome” than it has been in decades by “reducing paperwork and other administrative requirements.”

Biden wants to restore opportunities for foreign employees through the existing H-1B visa program, which is intended for workers with special skills. The administration also intends to create new pathways for foreign entrepreneurs who wish to “start-up businesses and create jobs for U.S. workers,” according to the document.

Officials are working on a regulation that could allow migrants to win asylum in the United States if they are victims of domestic violence or their relatives were persecuted. During the Trump era, Attorney General William Barr moved to end asylum protection for those who said they deserved it for those reasons.

Biden is also aiming to expand immigration opportunities for LGBTQ refugees from countries where they are persecuted or where same-sex marriages are not recognized.

In addition, he wants to revamp a program that provides a pathway to citizenship for immigrants living in the country illegally who help law enforcement by cooperating with police or testifying in court.

The waiting list for the U-Visa program has ballooned, leaving crime victims and survivors of domestic abuse vulnerable to abusers who may threaten to report them for deportation if they continue to talk to the police, said Leslye E. Orloff, director of the national immigrant women’s advocacy project at American University.

The Biden administration is considering extending protections to immigrants who cooperate even before they make it on the official waiting list for the visa, according to the document.

“They’re recognizing that there’s danger for these victims,” Orloff said.

Critics say the Biden administration is ignoring the negative consequences of their efforts. The H-1B program has been attacked as a loophole for tech companies to import cheap foreign workers to compete for jobs. Granting asylum to the victims of domestic abuse could open the door to accepting millions of additional people. And some Republicans say Biden should not loosen vetting of foreigners, though officials insist they will continue to screen for terrorists and other threats.

As the Biden administration pushes forward with the changes, officials appear willing to use emergency rules and presidential memos to avoid the lengthy regulatory process, in much the same way that Trump put his own agenda in place. But that could make Biden’s immigration legacy subject to a similar reversal by a Republican president in the future.

“The question looming over all of this work is how do you do this in a way that isn’t easily so capsized next time around,” said Doug Rand, a founder of Boundless Immigration, a technology company in Seattle that helps immigrants obtain green cards and citizenship.

Change could not come soon enough for Jenn Hawk, 37, who is living with her Argentine husband in Poland, where he works, even though her autistic son is in the Washington area with his father.

Because of delays in processing her husband’s immigration application, she is faced with a choice: stay in Poland with the man she married, or go back to the United States alone to be with her 10-year-old son.

Hawk filed to sponsor her husband’s immigration to the United States in October of 2020, spending $575 on the application. But they are facing a delay of more than 1 1/2 years before they can even submit their financial and medical information, let alone get an interview with an immigration officer.

“I just want to go home,” Hawk said. “It seems like they’re doing everything in their power to restrict that from being a possibility.”