President Joe Biden put immigration reform front and center starting his first day in office, but lingering issues continued to plague the administration, including the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic and years-long green card backlogs.
Here are some of the biggest immigration stories from the past year:
biden rolls back discriminatory policies
After taking office, President Biden wasted no time undoing some of the Trump administration’s most egregious immigration policies, including lifting the ban on immigrants and temporary visitors from Muslim-majority countries. Other rollbacks followed, including putting an end to the public charge rule, a wealth test that made it much harder for low-income people to obtain green cards; preserving and fortifying the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program (although a federal judge later barred first-time applicants from applying); expanding the U.S. refugee program that was gutted by the Trump administration; and halting the construction of a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border. For a detailed list of Biden’s immigration actions, see our Biden immigration tracker.
covid-19 exacerbates green card backlog
The Covid-19 pandemic continued to disrupt travel and immigration for a second year running. U.S. embassies and consulates around the world started to reopen and resume immigrant and nonimmigrant visa appointments, although many still offered limited services or remain closed, exacerbating the already massive green card backlog. The State Department announced in November that 461,125 would-be immigrants were waiting for interviews compared to 468,891 in October, an incremental decrease. Meanwhile scheduled interviews increased by 12 percent, although Boundless predicts that at this rate it will take 58 months or more to return to pre-pandemic levels.
Naturalization, however, fared better. The U.S. government naturalized roughly 808,000 lawful permanent residents in FY 2021 — nearly 200,000 more people than in FY 2020. When the COVID-19 pandemic first hit, USCIS stopped citizenship interviews and oath ceremonies, forcing tens of thousands of eligible immigrants to wait to become citizens. But a strategy released by the Biden administration earlier this year to remove obstacles to becoming a U.S. citizen appears to be working. The pace of naturalizations is still not at pre-pandemic levels – in 2019, USCIS naturalized 843,593 immigrants, the highest number since 2008.
The agency also imposed vaccination requirements on immigrants and international travelers. As of Oct. 1, green card applicants must be fully vaccinated against Covid-19 to immigrate to the United States. Any foreign travelers entering the country must also show proof of full vaccination as well as a negative PCR test taken within one day of departure.
Border crossings rebound post-pandemic but Trump-era border policies remain
After the coronavirus pandemic closed U.S. land borders to most crossings in March 2020, U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) reported that the number of migrants encountered along the southern U.S. border rebounded sharply in 2021, with encounter rates close to or greater than the previous high-water mark in 2000.
To address the large number of people arriving at the U.S. border, the Biden administration has continued to return them to their home countries using a Trump-era public health order often referred to as Title 42. The current administration has also been forced by a federal court order to restart the highly controversial Migrant Protection Protocols (MPP, but better known as “Remain in Mexico”), which it has tried to end on multiple occasions. The Trump-era program was used to send around 70,000 asylum-seekers to Mexico, and was restarted in December 2021. Since the original injunction barring the Department of Homeland Security from ending MPP, 86 migrants have been returned to Mexico under the program.
“Build Back Better” and immigration reform policies introduced in both House and Senate
The year started off with great fanfare on the legislative front, as the White House unveiled President Biden’s ambitious immigration agenda, the U.S. Citizenship Act. Introduced simultaneously in the House and Senate, the bill would provide an eight-year pathway to citizenship for 11 million undocumented immigrants, give legal status to DACA recipients, and increase the number of per-country green card caps.
In the House of Representatives, lawmakers introduced and even passed several bills that would establish a pathway to citizenship or legal status for millions of undocumented immigrants, including those brought to the country as children and workers in the agricultural sector.
The American Dream and Promise Act of 2021 is the latest version of the DREAM Act. The House of Representatives passed the bill in March 2021, but it has not been taken up in the Senate. The bill proposes to create a three-step pathway to citizenship for Dreamers and TPS holders, and could help as many as 3.4 million people.
Finally, the House also passed the Build Back Better Act on Nov. 19, a sweeping social and climate spending plan that Democrats aim to pass through the budget reconciliation process in order to avoid a Republican filibuster in the Senate. The House bill would provide immigration parole and work authorization for 7 million undocumented people, a mechanism to recapture unused green cards dating back to 1992, and allow people stuck in the green card backlog for two or more years to pay an extra fee to allow them to apply for their green cards early.
The immigration provisions in Build Back Better are still under negotiation in the Senate, where the parliamentarian is weighing whether they comply with Senate budget rules. Though the original goal was to enact the bill into law by the end of 2021, at the time of this writing it appears the bill will be pushed into early 2022.
DACA: Lawsuits Continue as Biden Administration Proposes New Rules to Recreate and Strengthen program
Late last year, a federal judge in New York struck down a DHS memo barring approval of first-time DACA applications and ordered the DHS to begin accepting new applicants, fully restoring the DACA program. Unfortunately, a different federal judge in Texas ruled in July that DACA is unlawful and barred USCIS from processing any new DACA applications, though the order did allow current DACA holders to keep their status and keep applying for renewals, for now. The Biden administration appealed the ruling in September, and the case is working its way through the appeals process in the Fifth Circuit. In the meantime, DHS proposed a rule to save DACA by re-creating it through the formal agency rule-making process, instead of through an agency policy memorandum, which is how DACA was created in 2012.
changes at uscis
USCIS made a number of meaningful changes as part of broader efforts to be more inclusive and transparent. In March, the agency removed the term “alien” to describe immigrants in its policy manual and replace it with “noncitizen” or “undocumented noncitizen.” It also announced it would test a new way to calculate processing times for immigration forms to make them “more accurate, timely, and easier to understand.” The Senate also made history when it named Ur Jaddou as the new head of USCIS, the first woman and first person of Arab and Mexican descent to lead the agency.