Biden’s immigration reforms could put 11 million people on the path to US citizenship. What to know


The Biden administration has big plans for immigration reform.

Angela Lang/CNET

President Joe Biden has unveiled hefty immigration reforms — formally named the US Citizenship Act of 2021 –that would include providing an eight-year path to citizenship for over 11 million undocumented immigrants if it becomes law, as well as preserving and fortifying the DACA program. The sweeping proposal aims to reverse and revise many of former President Donald Trump’s policies.

On Tuesday, Biden signed three more executive orders about immigration. One order will create a task force led by the secretary of homeland security which will work to reunite immigrant families that were separated at the border under Trump’s administration. Biden’s second order will investigate the root humanitarian issues at the US’ southern border. The third action orders a full review of the previous administration’s immigration policies. 

Biden’s administration hit the ground running on Jan. 20, mapping out how to best handle controlling COVID-19 while increasing vaccination efforts, the fallout of the Jan. 6 US Capitol riots, pushing a coronavirus relief package and more. House Democratic leadership on Monday told Politico that the upcoming coronavirus relief package will not include a pathway to citizenship for undocumented essential workers, Dreamers and Temporary Protected Status recipients.

So far, Biden has signed over 40 executive actions, undoing many of the Trump administration’s actions. These presidential directives pertain to everything from rejoining the World Health Organization and the Paris Climate Accord to attempting to reverse the travel ban targeting Muslim-majority countries

“I’m not making new law,” Biden said Tuesday in regards to the multiple orders he’s signed since his Inauguration. “I’m eliminating bad policy.”  

Here’s what you need to know about the president’s new immigration plans and how the path to naturalization would work for millions of undocumented US residents.

Biden’s vision for citizenship: What to know

We don’t have a physical bill to thumb through yet, but it could be over 100 pages. In addition to the mass reversals of Trump’s policies, the Biden administration wants to provide an eight-year path to citizenship for the almost 11 million unauthorized people living in the US. 


President Biden signed a stack of executive orders on his first day in office. 

The White House/Screenshot by Amanda Kooser/CNET

The citizenship timeline is pretty easy to understand. Those living in the US without legal status as of Jan. 1, 2021 could gain temporary legal status, or a green card, in five years. To do so, they’d need to pass a background check, pay taxes and meet other requirements. Millions of unauthorized immigrants already pay taxes by using an Individual Taxpayer Identification Number. Workers without legal status generate millions of dollars for Social Security and Medicare, yet aren’t eligible for any of the benefits that accompany a social security number.

After that, Biden’s plan outlines a three-year path to naturalization if the person pursues citizenship. 

It’s also possible that Biden could flesh out the executive order pertaining to DACA to give the program’s recipients an even quicker path to naturalization. 

How many people are in America without legal status?

About 10.5 million of the immigrants in the US are unauthorized according to the Pew Research Center based on augmented US Census Bureau data from 2017. Pew also reported about 35 million immigrants who were naturalized citizens, 12.3 million lawful permanent residents and 2.2 million temporary lawful residents. 

More than 60% of unauthorized immigrants have lived in the country for over 10 years, and they have over 4 million US-born citizen children and account for 5% of the workforce, according to The New York Times.

It’s important to note that, under the 14th Amendment, any person born in the US is a citizen, no matter the citizenship status of their parents. The Times also noted that about four in 10 unauthorized immigrants did not enter the US through border crossings. Many arrived in the US on student or work visas and remained, or fled violence in their home country.

After Biden signed the executive order ensuring accurate Census counts — regardless of immigration status —  it’s possible we’ll have an updated picture in the future. Trump had previously signed Executive Order 13880 that aimed to exclude undocumented immigrants living in the US from being counted in the census. 

How Biden’s plan is different from DACA

Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, only pertains to the children of unauthorized immigrants, aka Dreamers. Biden’s plan would include everyone living in the US without legal status as of Jan. 1, 2021. The Obama administration had previously put a type of sister program in place called DAPA, or Deferred Action for Parents of Americans and Lawful Permanent Residents (PDF), in 2014. DAPA was meant to protect illegal immigrants with children who were American citizens or lawful permanent residents by deferring deportation. Trump issued Executive Order 13768 in 2017, which canceled DAPA but kept DACA.


Protesters voiced their support for DACA when the program came under attack by the Trump administration. 

Mandel Ngan/Getty Images

Biden’s plan, however, would provide a fresh path to citizenship regardless of whether a person has children. The Citizenship Act of 2021 offers protections for a wide range of immigrants.

Biden’s plan would include:

  • DACA Dreamers
  • Temporary Protected Status holders
  • Immigrant farmworkers 
  • Orphans, widows, children
  • Filipino veterans who fought alongside the US in World War II
  • Immigrants with approved family-sponsorship positions to join their family in the US on a temporary basis
  • Asylum seekers (the bill seeks to eliminate the one-year deadline for filing asylum claims)
  • Other vulnerable populations like U visa, T visa and VAWA visa applicants
  • Foreign nationals assisting US troops

What would have to happen next for Biden’s plan to take place?

Biden has merely introduced the bill. To become law, the legislation still needs to move through proper channels. Both Democrats and Republicans agree that Biden’s reform bill is a massive undertaking, but Biden has also said he’s willing to push the bill through Congress in pieces. 

New Jersey Democratic Sen. Bob Menendez said that despite initial Republican pushback, bipartisan agreement is possible. It’s also necessary. Even though Democrats hold the Senate majority, the chamber has a 50-50 split, which could spell resistance for one big bill. This also means we could see piecemeal legislation. 


Biden introduced sweeping reforms to immigration just a few hours after his inauguration. 

Saul Loeb/Getty Images

How Biden’s approach to immigration differs from Trump’s

Immigration policies aren’t new. Lawmakers have been creating them and debating them since the country’s infancy. The new administration, however, is more focused on the policies in the last decade. 


How it started: Trump dealt a crippling blow to the DACA program in 2017 when Attorney General Jeff Sessions said no further applications would be considered. The future of countless recipients became uncertain. The Supreme Court in June 2020 ruled that Trump could not shut down the program in a narrow vote that allowed 800,000 Dreamers to remain in the US. 

How it’s going: Biden signed a memorandum titled Preserving and Fortifying Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals on Jan. 20. The action directs the Secretary of Homeland Security and the Attorney General to lawfully strengthen and protect the program. 


Biden’s legislation would also overturn Trump’s executive order that placed discriminatory travel bans on majority Muslim countries.

Mark Wilson/Getty Images

Muslim travel ban

How it started: Trump issued a series of executive orders that barred travel and refugee resettlement from select Muslim-majority countries including Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen. The restrictions expanded to more countries in 2018 and 2020. Like the administration’s attacks on DACA, the travel bans came under legal scrutiny from civil rights groups such as the ACLU. By 2018, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of the third version of the order.

How it’s going: Biden signed the Proclamation on Ending Discriminatory Bans on Entry to the US which overturns the Muslim travel bans — namely Executive Order 13780, as well as Proclamations 9645, 9723 and 9983 put in place by Trump. Biden’s order also aims to dust off the backlog of immigration waivers processing and resume visa processing. 

ICE, sanctuary cities and deportation

How it started: In 2017, the Trump administration introduced a policy known as Enhancing Public Safety in the Interior of the United States, or Executive Order 13768. The order broadly bolstered immigration authorities to deport families, long-time residents and Dreamers. Sanctuary cities — communities that shielded undocumented immigrants from deportation — who did not cooperate risked losing federal grants from the Department of Justice.

How it’s going: On day one, Biden signed an executive order revising civil immigration enforcement policies, which subsequently revoked Executive Order 13768. Biden’s executive order vowed to protect national and border security, as well as address humanitarian issues at the southern border. 

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