Democrats unveiled legislation Thursday for President Joe Biden's plan to create a path to citizenship for 11 million undocumented immigrants, saying there is no justification for denying them a permanent home in the United States.
Biden called the policy reforms "long overdue" and said they were aimed at reversing the "misguided policies" of his predecessor Donald Trump, who mounted a hardline effort to halt illegal immigration, slash legal immigration and drive out undocumented immigrants, even those in the country for decades.
The new proposal aims to give legal protections to millions of people, mostly from Mexico and central America, who have lived in the country for many years, with homes, businesses and US-born children and grandchildren.
"Immigration is an irrefutable source of our strength and is essential to who we are as a nation," Biden said in a statement.
"This is an important first step in pursuing immigration policies that unite families, grow and enhance our economy, and safeguard our security," he said.
The main focus of the legislation is to offer an eight-year path to citizenship to most of the undocumented immigrants living and working in the United States.
Some, including farmworkers and people brought to the country as children -- so-called Dreamers -- will get an immediate path to permanent residency or a "green card," allowing them to work legally.
Others addressed include thousands of people in the United States under temporary protected status (TPS) due to violent upheavals or natural disasters in their home countries.
And, underscoring the Biden administration's reversal from Trump's strident anti-immigration policies, the legislation also proposes the end of calling undocumented immigrants "aliens" in US law.
Instead, they will be referred to as "non-citizens."
"It's time to bring all 11 million undocumented out of the shadows," said Democratic Senator Bob Menendez, a leading backer of the legislation.
"We have an economic and moral imperative to pass big, bold and inclusive immigration reform that leaves no one behind, not our dreamers and TPS holders, not our farmworkers and meatpackers, not our essential workers, not our parents, friends, and neighbours," he said.
Menendez noted that many of the immigrants work in the farm, food, and healthcare industries that have been essential during the Covid-19 pandemic, while risking higher rates of coronavirus infection and death.
"They are essential workers, so essential that our economy would not function without them. Yet they live under constant fear," he said.
Biden announced on January 20, his first day in office, that he would pursue comprehensive reforms to immigration laws to lay out a more "humane" and "just" system.
A major focus is the Dreamers, people brought to the United States illegally as children who grew up here.
Biden was vice president in the administration of President Barack Obama, who sought citizenship for Dreamers, only to be forced to compromise with Republicans for short-term measures.
Trump attempted to reverse the Dreamers program as part of more than 400 executive orders to curb immigration and punish the undocumented.
But it was only partially reinstated, leaving the status of millions uncertain.
Besides offering a pathway to citizenship for millions already living in the United States, Biden wants a more forgiving policy at the border, ending Trump's "zero tolerance" approach and reuniting families separated by it.
Menendez called on Democrats to take advantage of their narrow control of both houses of Congress to push through the legislation.
Republicans condemned it, saying the changes would lead to a new border crisis as people from Central American countries flock north with hopes of entering the United States.
"This blatantly partisan proposal rewards those who broke the law, floods the labour market at a time when millions of Americans are out of work, fails to secure the border, and incentivizes further illegal immigration," said Republican Representative Jim Jordan.
In another immigration-related move Thursday, the Biden administration ordered US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) to limit its apprehension and expulsion of illegal immigrants mainly to those who constitute national security risks.
Under Trump, ICE conducted roundups and deportations against migrants with even minor infractions such as traffic violations.