By Anne Walker | Staff Writer
On his first day in office, President Biden proposed the U.S. Citizenship Act of 2021. Some members of the Waco community find hope in the bill’s promises to comprehensively reform the U.S. immigration system, while others remain wary.
A White House press statement claimed the legislation “establishes a new system to responsibly manage and secure our border, keep our families and communities safe, and better manage migration across the hemisphere.”
Susan Nelson, local immigration attorney and contributor to the Baylor Immigration Law Clinic, described the U.S. Citizenship Act of 2021 as a “wish list of everything that [immigration advocates] think needs to be done to help undocumented populations.”
“There’s a large undocumented population in Waco, estimated between 15,000 and 25,000 who are undocumented,” Nelson said. “Most of them have been here for a very long time, 10 years or more … These people are paying taxes, putting their kids through school.”
If Congress passes the legislation, it could grant 11 million undocumented individuals a path to citizenship. The proposed bill outlines an eight-year process for most applicants who entered the U.S. on or prior to Jan. 1, 2021. The White House highlighted certain stipulations in the legislation, including the requirements that applicants “pass criminal and national security background checks and pay their taxes.”
Hope Balfa-Mustakim, Baylor graduate and executive director of the Waco Immigrants Alliance, detailed the compounding effects that the U.S. Citizenship Act of 2021 could have on the Waco community.
“The economic impact, the social impact, the effect [it] would have on parent engagement in schools, the effect it would have on even relationships with law enforcement and not feeling afraid to call the police whenever they witness crime … it really makes me emotional because people who are unaffected by immigration policy have no idea of the depth and breadth and width of how this policy affects our entire community,” Balfa-Mustakim said.
Balfa-Mustakim stated that undocumented immigrants often decline needed aid because they are fearful of being reported as a “public charge.” She shared a story about Waco residents that turned down COVID-19 relief.
“They were so scared of them being considered a public charge and it affecting their green card application that they didn’t take the emergency funds for housing when they desperately needed it,” Balfa-Mustakim said.
The White House also touted the legislation’s potential to benefit the economy through its streamlined process for employment-based green cards and a pilot program for regional economic growth. The Biden administration affirmed, “The bill will stimulate our economy while ensuring that every worker is protected.”
Despite these assurances, some Baylor students maintained the bill could harm the U.S. economy.
“Mass immigration of this kind can undermine American workers, specifically in Texas, who are not willing to work for as low a wage as recent immigrants,” Parker sophomore Conner Ammar said. “In general, the Democratic party is very enthusiastic about mass migration into the United States. I do not share this enthusiasm for the simple reason that this undermines the existing American workforce and overwhelms the urban and suburban housing market with a massive influx of people who need shelter.”
The U.S. Citizenship Act of 2021 singles out temporary protected status (TPS) recipients, agriculture workers and DACA recipients, providing them a way to immediately qualify for green cards. These groups could attain citizenship within three years.
Nelson addressed the impact this legislation would have on Texas’ agriculture industry.
“There’s been a real problem with the farmworker immigration laws for years because there’s not a path for people who work on dairy farms … the only thing that’s been available has been seasonal work,” Nelson said. “It works great for Florida where they’re going from crop to crop picking grapefruit, oranges, but most of our farmers here in the Central Texas area need somebody 365 days a year.”
A 2017 USDA census of agriculture reported there is around 573,288 acres of farm land in McLennan County and over 5,000 recorded individuals that work on the land.
The Biden administration took action on its first day to bolster the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program by directing the Secretary of Homeland Security to “take all actions he deems appropriate, consistent with applicable law, to preserve and fortify DACA.” However, the program still requires renewal every two years. Nelson explains that the US Citizenship Act of 2021 would provide a more permanent solution to Dreamers’ precarious legal status.
“[DACA] for so many people has been incredibly life changing,” Nelson said. “It’s allowed them to continue with their education to be able to work in their chosen fields, that sort of thing. But every two years you have to reapply, and it’s always in danger being taken away.”
In December, a Houston judge heard cases from Texas and eight other states that are currently suing to end DACA by arguing that the program, enacted by President Barack Obama in 2012, is unconstitutional because it goes around Congress’ ability to set United States immigration law.
Ammar commented on bill’s pathways to citizenship saying, “I am not necessarily against a pathway to citizenship for these undocumented immigrants. My concern, however, is that the Biden administration will not take care to see that immigrants are properly assimilated into American society. However, it does seem that the bill will prioritize those who speak English fluently and can demonstrate a passable knowledge of American civics.”
The White House confirmed that the act would require all applicants to “demonstrate knowledge of English and U.S. civics … to become citizens.”
The ambitious proposal needs the support of 10 Republicans to pass in the now evenly divided Senate.
“[Congress is] probably going to try and whittle it down,” Balfa-Mustakim said. “I hope the majority of it remains intact when it goes through the House and the Senate.”