Sen. Bob Menendez, D-N.J., on Thursday unveiled the text of a sweeping immigration bill backed by President Biden that would grant a pathway to citizenship to millions of illegal immigrants -- while pushing back against those who call it "amnesty."
"To those who want to call this bill amnesty, I know there are some," Menendez said. "Ten angels could come swearing from above that this is the best tailored legislation, that it will secure our border, regularize our system and they would say, ‘No, it's amnesty’ -- they will never be satisfied."
The U.S. Citizenship Act of 2021 includes an eight-year path to citizenship for illegal immigrants, who the White House has estimated to be at 11 million people, but other estimates have put much higher.
In addition to the rapid pathway to citizenship, much shorter than previous proposals, the bill would grant immediate green cards to farmworkers, Temporary Protected Status (TPS) recipients and Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) recipients.
It would also open up legal pathways to immigration even further, including expanding the controversial green card lottery from 55,000 a year to 80,000 a year, exempting children and spouses from visa cap numbers, giving dependents green cards, and "recapturing" unused visas from previous years to help clear backlogs, and eliminating per-country visa caps.
It also scraps the "unlawful presence bars" -- bans on legal re-entry to the U.S. for those who have been in the country unlawfully -- and sets up refugee processing centers in Central America.
Separately, the bill also includes $4 billion in funding to target what the administration describes as "root causes" for migration from south of the border -- including cracking down on bad actors and expanding anti-gang task forces.
The bill contains significantly less on border security than previous efforts on bipartisan immigration reform, including funding for technology to expedite screening and enhance the ability of officials to identify contraband.
It is far from clear if the bill has the ability to pass the Senate, where it needs 10 Republican votes to get through the chamber. Republicans, as Menendez noted, have called it a "mass amnesty" bill and even Republicans who have been involved in past immigration reform efforts described it as a non-starter.
Senate GOP leader Mitch McConnell recently called it a "massive proposal for blanket amnesty that would gut enforcement of American laws while creating huge new incentives for people to rush here illegally at the same time"
While the Biden administration has indicated it is open to potential compromises, including breaking the bill up into individual components, Mendendez warned Democrats against compromising too much to what he called "fringe" voices.
"The reason we have not got immigration reform over the finish line is not because of a lack of will. It’s because time and time again we have compromised too much and capitulated too quickly to fringe voices who have refused to accept the humanity and contributions of immigrants to our country and dismiss everything, no matter how significant it is in terms of national security, as amnesty," he said.
"From [former House Speaker] John Boehner, who blocked comprehensive immigration reform from reaching the House floor, white nationalists like Steve King and Jeff Sessions to a manipulative madman named Donald Trump, there will always be those who stand against immigrants, believing reform is somehow a political loss to Republicans and not a win for the United States of America," he said.
The split over the bill is part of a broader split over immigration in general between the administration and Democrats on one side, and Republicans on the other.
The Biden administration has sought to undo a number of Trump-era border policies, including stopping wall construction, ending Trump-era travel bans, rolling back the Migrant Protection Protocols and attempting to put a 100-day pause on deportations.
But Republicans have warned that the combo of looser border security measures and what they call an amnesty bill will lead to a new crisis at the border and within the U.S.
"Once it becomes abundantly clear that the border is open, tens and hundreds of thousands more will follow," Sen. Bill Hagerty, R-Tenn., said in a letter to Biden on Wednesday.