Biden immigration reform: New citizenship bills and border closures and what that means for citizenship

The southern US border is closed just days after the House of Representatives passes two new immigration reform bills. Here's what it means for citizenship and green cards.

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Shelby Brown (she/her/hers) is an editor for CNET's services team. She covers tips and tricks for apps, operating systems and devices, as well as mobile gaming and Apple Arcade news. Shelby also oversees Tech Tips coverage. Before joining CNET, she covered app news for Download.com and served as a freelancer for Louisville.com.
  • She received the Renau Writing Scholarship in 2016 from the University of Louisville's communication department.
Shelby Brown
5 min read

The Biden administration has big plans for immigration reform.

Angela Lang/CNET

Secretary of Homeland Security Alejandro Mayorkas on Sunday said that the US' southern border is closed. The news comes days after the House of Representatives signed off on two bills that seek to clear a path for certain migrants to receive permanent resident status. 

"Our message has been straightforward and simple," Mayorkas said during a Meet the Press interview. "And it's true, the border is closed. We're expelling families, we're expelling single adults and we've made a decision that we will not expel young vulnerable children."

The closure is in response to a surge of people at the southern border and officials needing time to rebuild the legal processes for entry into the US that were dismantled under the Trump administration.  

On Thursday, the House signed off on the American Dream and Promise Act of 2021, or HR 6, which looks to provide green cards and potential eventual citizenship to migrants who entered the US as minors. In addition, the House pushed HR 1603, which would provide legal status for migrant farm workers

The new actions follow a busy February for the Biden administration. Last month, President Joe Biden reversed former President Donald Trump's ban on legal immigration and reopened the US to people seeking green cards. He also signed three executive orders about immigration. The orders individually seek to reunite immigrant families separated at the border, investigate humanitarian issues at the US' southern border and review the previous administration's immigration policies for groups like undocumented essential workers, Dreamers and Temporary Protected Status recipients.

The two House bills tie into Biden's overhaul of US immigration policies -- which lawmakers have approached in a piecemeal fashion -- as opposed to the hefty US Citizenship Act of 2021. The massive proposal was introduced in Congress last month and details 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.

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

Biden's citizenship plans: What we know

A key policy is that 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. 

This new legislation, particularly HR 6, will provide "conditional permanent resident status" to qualifying nonresidents who entered the US as minors. The bill requires the individual to have been physically present in the US since Jan. 1, 2021, pass a background check, and be enrolled in an educational program.

HR 1603, the legislation regarding migrant farmers, seeks to deliver lawful status, better working conditions and stability for immigrants in the agricultural industry.

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.

Biden signed an executive order in support of accurate census counts regardless of immigration status in January, so it's possible we'll have an updated picture in the future. Trump had previously signed Executive Order 13880, which aimed to exclude undocumented immigrants living in the US from being counted in the census. 

Biden's plan is different from DACA

Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, only pertains to the children of unauthorized immigrants, sometimes referred to as "Dreamers," based on never-passed proposals in Congress called the DREAM Act. 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, 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. Originally proposed as the Citizenship Act of 2021, Biden hopes to 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 go into effect?

To become law, the legislation still needs to move through proper channels. From the start, Democrats and Republicans agreed that Biden's reform bill is a massive undertaking, and so far, the larger bill has been broken up into smaller bits of legislation. Seeing Biden's immigration reforms through in a piecemeal fashion was anticipated by both sides of the political aisle. 


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

Saul Loeb/Getty Images

A recap of Biden's approach to immigration

Lawmakers have been creating and debating immigration policies since the country's infancy; the new administration is mostly focused on the policies in effect in the last decade. 


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

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 waiver processing and resume visa processing. 

ICE, sanctuary cities and deportation

On his first day in office, 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.