Legislative Bulletin — Friday, February 19, 2021

BILLS INTRODUCED AND CONSIDERED
LEGISLATIVE FLOOR CALENDAR
UPCOMING HEARINGS AND MARKUPS
THEMES IN WASHINGTON THIS WEEK
GOVERNMENT REPORTS
SPOTLIGHT ON NATIONAL IMMIGRATION FORUM RESOURCES

BILLS INTRODUCED AND CONSIDERED

S. 327

The Border Business COVID-19 Rescue Act

The bill would create a loan program through the Small Business Administration that would be dedicated to assisting small businesses within 25 miles of the border. The loans provided through the program would be interest free and designed to cover costs associated with the COVID-19 pandemic and associated border closures.

Sponsored by Senator Mark Kelly (D-Arizona) (1 cosponsor — 1 Republican, 0 Democrats)

02/12/2021 Introduced in the Senate by Senator Kelly

02/12/2021 Referred to the Senate Committee on Finance

 S. __  

U.S. Citizenship Act of 2021

The bill would provide a path to citizenship for the undocumented population, a border management approach that includes a focus on addressing root causes of forced migration, a legal immigration reform platform, a series of humanitarian provisions, and additional protections for immigrants at the worksite. The House companion bill was introduced by Rep. Linda Sanchez (D-California).

Sponsored by Senator Robert Menendez (D-New Jersey) (22 cosponsors – 0 Republicans, 22 Democrats)

02/18/2021 Introduced in the Senate by Senator Menendez

H.R. 977

The Lady Liberty Act

The bill would require the President to set the annual refugee resettlement goal at a minimum of 125,000 refugees each fiscal year. In circumstances in which a President does not make a determination, the refugee goal would assumed to be at 125,000.

Sponsored by Representative Gerald Connolly (D-Va) (56 cosponsors — 56 Democrats, 0 Republicans)

02/11/2021 Introduced in the House by Representative Connolly

02/11/2021 Referred to the House Committee on the Judiciary

H.R. ___

U.S. Citizenship Act of 2021

The bill would provide a path to citizenship for the undocumented population, a border management approach that includes a focus on addressing root causes of forced migration, a legal immigration reform platform, a series of humanitarian provisions, and additional protections for immigrants at the worksite. The Senate companion bill was introduced by Rep. Robert Menendez (D-New Jersey).

Sponsored by Senator Linda Sanchez (D-California) (80 cosponsors – 0 Republicans, 80 Democrats)

02/18/2021 Introduced in the House by Representative Sanchez

LEGISLATIVE FLOOR CALENDAR

The U.S. Senate will be in session from February 22, 2021 to February 26, 2021.

The U.S. House of Representatives will be in session from February 23, 2021 to Friday, February 26, 2021.

UPCOMING HEARINGS AND MARKUPS

Hearings to Examine the Nomination of Merrick Garland to be Attorney General

Date: Monday, February 22, 2021 at 9:30 a.m.; Tuesday, February 23, 2021 at 10:00 a.m.;

Location: Hart Senate Office Building Room 216

Witnesses: Judge Merrick Garland, U.S Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit

THEMES IN WASHINGTON THIS WEEK

Federal

Democrats in the House and Senate Introduce Biden’s Immigration Bill

On February 18, Democrats in the House and Senate formerly introduced an expansive immigration bill following the framework initially sent to Congress by President Biden on January 20. The bill, titled the U.S. Citizenship Act of 2021, was introduced by Representative Linda Sanchez (D-California) in the House of Representatives and Senator Bob Menendez (D-New Jersey) In the Senate. Sanchez and Menendez provided additional details about the legislation in a February 18 news conference.

The bill would provide an eight-year path to citizenship for most of the undocumented population, a border management approach that includes a focus on addressing root causes of migration from Central America, a series of legal immigration reforms, a number of humanitarian provisions, and additional protections for immigrants at the worksite.

While most of the undocumented population would have to spend at least five years on a temporary status before being able to apply for green cards and eventual citizenship under the proposal, the bill reportedly would immediately provide access to green cards for Dreamers, Temporary Protected Status (TPS) recipients, and farmworkers, provided they meet certain criteria. The legal immigration reforms in the bill include attempts to eliminate both the employment-based and family-based green card backlogs, along with a series of provisions designed to value family unity. The bill does not include significant reforms to the structure of the immigration visa system, although it would increase the number of work, diversity, and family-based immigrant visas that are available annually.

One provision of the U.S. Citizenship Act would replace the term “alien” in the Immigration and Nationality Act with the term “noncitizen.” The move is part of a broader effort by the Biden administration to use more inclusive language when talking about immigrants and immigration. According to a February 16 Axios report, the acting director of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) signed a memo directing agency officials to use “more inclusive language” in its communication and outreach efforts.

A White House spokesperson said Biden is willing to negotiate the substance of the legislation with interested parties across the political spectrum. According to a February 17 New York Times report, the Biden administration is also supportive of alternative, incremental approaches to immigration reform that could include consideration of individual bills that provide pathways to legalization for Dreamers, undocumented farmworkers, and others, provisions which enjoy bipartisan support.

ICE Announces Interim Enforcement Guidance

On February 18, acting U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) director Tae Johnson issued an interim memorandum updating interior immigration enforcement guidelines, consistent with President Biden’s January 20 Executive Order on the Revision of Civil Immigration Enforcement Policies and Priorities. The interim guidance, which is effective immediately, re-prioritizes enforcement efforts to focus on those who are deemed national security threats, those who recently crossed the border unlawfully, and those who have been convicted of aggravated felonies or other violent crimes.

The guidance covers ICE actions regarding interior enforcement operations, detention, deportations, financial expenditures, and overall strategy. It is set to remain in effect until Department of Homeland Security (DHS) secretary Alejandro Mayorkas issues new enforcement guidelines. According to the Johnson memo, Mayorkas “anticipates issuing these guidelines in less than 90 days.”

DHS Rejects 11th-Hour Deal Between Trump Officials and ICE Union  

On February 16, the Biden Administration struck down last-minute agreements that Trump officials made with the ICE employee union that would have allowed the union to “indefinitely delay changes to immigration enforcement policies and practices.” The agreement, signed the day before President Biden’s inauguration by former Trump administration DHS official Ken Cuccinelli, would have forced the new administration to get approval from NIC 118, the over 7,000-member ICE union, which twice endorsed former President Trump.

According to a whistleblower complaint filed by the Government Accountability Project, “the agreements grant NIC 118 extraordinary power and benefits — far more than what DHS agreed upon with its other employee unions which did not endorse President Trump.” Under federal law, agency heads have the authority to revoke such agreements within 30 days from the date they are executed. If the Biden administration had not revoked it, the agreement could have blocked the administration from challenging any aspects of the contract for the next eight years.

Under the agreement signed by Cuccinelli, who served in a series of non-Senate confirmed acting positions in his tenure at DHS, the ICE union can appeal the revocation to the Federal Labor Relations Authority. On February 3, DHS terminated separate, similar agreements with states and localities that were also attempts by Cuccinelli to hamstring Biden administration immigration priorities.

A DHS spokesperson told CBS News that the agreement “was not negotiated in the interest of DHS and has been disapproved because it is not in accordance with applicable law.”

U.S. Teams with Mexico and Nongovernmental Organizations to Begin Processing Asylum Seekers Stuck in Migration Protection Protocols

On February 19, the Biden administration began processing migrants that have been caught in the Trump-era Migration Protection Protocols (MPP). Under the policy, asylum seekers had to remain in Mexico while awaiting their cases to be heard in U.S. immigration courts. The new actions only apply to the approximately 25,000 individuals subject to MPP who currently have active cases in U.S. immigration court.

Those whom the administration has deemed “most vulnerable,” including those who have been the victims of crime while stranded in Mexico under MPP, were the first deemed eligible to enter the U.S. for processing. However, DHS secretary Alejandro Mayorkas said that concerns associated with the COVID-19 pandemic will limit the number of asylum seekers who can enter at one time.

U.S. officials are getting help from nongovernmental organizations such as the International Organization for Migration to help with logistics and COVID-19 testing. Mexican officials and agents to the U.N. migration agency have also agreed to assist with informing asylum seekers if their case status has changed under the evolving policy.

The policy shift comes at a time when nearly a thousand asylum seekers, some of whom are in MPP, face freezing temperatures along the U.S.-Mexico border and are in need of shelter. In addition, the total number of immigrants arriving at the border has continued to rise. Much of that increase is associated with rising instances of repeat crossers, but the numbers of arriving families and unaccompanied children have also risen slightly and are reaching pre-pandemic levels.

On February 11, Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador cautioned migrants against “human traffickers, who paint a rosy picture” of the U.S. border. A White House spokesperson confirmed that a “vast majority” of individuals arriving at the border would continue to be immediately expelled under a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) rule.

Lawmakers Urge End to Deportations of Black Migrants

On February 12, members of the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC) urged the Biden Administration to stop the deportation of Black migrants to Haiti and a number of African countries, which have continued in recent weeks even as other deportations slowed down. Almost 800 Haitians have already been deported in the past two weeks, and immigrant advocacy groups fear DHS will follow through on plans to deport over 1,800 Black migrants in the month of February alone.

Representative Mondaire Jones (D-New York), in coordination with 11 other members of the CBC, released a statement demanding that these deportations be stopped, expressing concerns that “ICE is disparately targeting Black asylum-seekers and immigrants.” The members further argued that the individuals are being deported to countries facing violence and political instability, made even more dangerous during the COVID-19 pandemic.

On January 20, the Biden administration issued a 100-day deportation moratorium, but the pause was halted by a federal judge in Texas. Even when in effect, the moratorium only applied to those who arrived in the U.S. before November 2020, and many of those subject to the deportations arrived after this date. Still, advocates say the court action does not obligate DHS to continue the deportations of Haitian and African migrants, and DHS retains discretion to stop them.

Biden Administration Plans to Increase Resettlement of Refugee Children

President Biden announced in a report to Congress that he plans to increase admissions of Unaccompanied Refugee Minors (URMs), children who have been displaced without parents or adult family members.

The U.S. is the only country to operate a resettlement program specifically for URMs and has resettled 13,000 children since the program’s founding in 1980. However, the U.S. admitted decreasing numbers of URMs under the Trump administration, resettling 101 unaccompanied minors in 2020, compared to 294 in 2015. The U.S. has resettled zero unaccompanied refugee children so far in fiscal year (FY) 2021 (which began in October), due in part to Trump administration limits on refugee referrals.

Meanwhile, the number of URMs worldwide has continued to rise, reaching 159,000 in 2019, according to one U.N. report. Refugee advocates and U.S. resettlement agencies have advocated for 1% of all refugee admissions be reserved for URMs moving forward.

The Biden administration also plans to raise the refugee admissions ceiling for the remainder of  FY 2021, from a historic low of 15,000 to 62,500. In a February 4 executive order, Biden announced the intention of raising the ceiling to 125,000 beginning in FY 2022.

White House Rescinds “Blank Space” Policy That Led to Rising Rejection Rates for Certain Visa Applications 

The Biden administration has ended a Trump-era policy that required immigration officials to reject visa application forms submitted with blank spaces, even if the blanks were in response to questions that did not apply to the applicant. A spokesperson for the Biden administration confirmed on February 12 that USCIS rescinded the policy by updating guidance on their website in late January.

The policy was originally implemented by the Trump administration in late 2019 and applied to asylum applications and U visas, which are granted to immigrant crime victims who cooperate with law enforcement or government officials in the investigation or prosecution of criminal activity. An attorney with the Northwest Immigrant Rights Project told Spectrum News that at least 12,000 U visas were rejected under the blank space policy as of spring 2020, and he estimates that thousands of asylum applications faced a similar challenge. Now, immigrant advocacy organizations are advocating in court for the administration to recognize the original applications that had their claims improperly rejected under the policy.

Legal

Federal Judge Halts Asylum Restrictions 

On February 16, a federal court in Oakland, California struck down a Trump administration rule that aimed to severely restrict asylum claims at the U.S. border, arguing that the rule “increases the risk asylum applicants will be subjected to violence.”

The rule, enacted in the final days of the Trump administration, served as the administration’s second attempt to bar asylum claims from people who transited through a third country on their way to the U.S. DHS and the Department of Justice (DOJ) initially issued the Third-Country Asylum Rule in July 2019, but it was struck down in July 2020 by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, which barred the rule from taking effect.

In response, the Trump administration issued a revised version of the rule in December 2020, attempting to address the federal appeals court’s ruling through minor revisions to the text. The rule was temporarily blocked in January by a separate federal court in California, before it was enjoined by the court in Oakland.

GOVERNMENT REPORTS

Government Accountability Office (GAO): IMMIGRATION DETENTION: Actions Needed to Improve Planning, Documentation, and Oversight of Detention Facility Contracts; February 12, 2021

In this report, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) reviewed ICE detention contracts and agreements for Fiscal Year (FY) 2019. The review found that ICE has not been following guidelines for acquiring new detention space and has not been appropriately enforcing the agreements of its contracts. Of the 40 contracts it reviewed, GAO found that 28 did not have proper documentation from ICE agents explaining the need for the space, demonstrating outreach to local officials, or showing the reasons the agency decided to enter into these contracts. GAO further found that without following the guidelines, ICE cannot be sure that it is making cost-effective decisions to meet its needs.

SPOTLIGHT ON NATIONAL IMMIGRATION FORUM RESOURCES

Fact Sheet: Unaccompanied Migrant Children (UACs)

This resource provides information on unaccompanied children arriving at the border. It describes why these children come alone to the border, the particular challenges they face, and the legal protections offered to them.

Fact Sheet: Immigration and Customs Enforcement

This fact sheet provides an overview of ICE, describing the agency’s role in the immigration system and providing details about its mission, priorities, and size.

Biden Administration’s January/February Executive Actions on Immigration

This explainer summarizes several of the Biden administration’s executive actions impacting immigrants from January and February. The explainer provides summaries of 13 immigration-related memoranda, proclamations, and executive orders issued in Biden’s first weeks in office.

 

* * *

*This Bulletin is not intended to be comprehensive. Please contact Danilo Zak, National Immigration Forum Policy and Advocacy Associate, with comments and suggestions of additional items to be included. Danilo can be reached at dzak@immigrationforum.org. Thank you.

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