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Key Decisions to Be Made around Immigration and Border Closures

ANNIE PFORZHEIMER

ANNIE PFORZHEIMER

Annie Pforzheimer is a retired career diplomat with the personal rank of Minister Counselor from the Department of State, a Senior Non-Resident Associate at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a member of the Council on Foreign Relations, a Global Fellow at the Woodrow Wilson Center, an Adjunct Professor at the City University of New York, and a public commentator and consultant on foreign policy issues.

Looking ahead to Q2, the US Congress will be the locus of important migration debates and, ideally, decisions. The most notable of these will be during an as-yet unscheduled House and Senate review of the US Citizenship Act of 2021, which Democrats in both houses introduced on 18 February. This legislation derives from President Biden’s ambitious immigration plan, unveiled in January, which operationalizes his campaign promises and aims to promote a path to citizenship for millions of undocumented residents and to facilitate other aspects of immigration processing. According to observers the House will not mark up the bill until at least April and before then is due to vote on two partial immigration measures, which had passed the House during the previous Congress: the American Dream and Promise Act and the Farm Workforce Modernization Act.

Ongoing resistance to immigration reform

In the current polarized political environment, immigration reform faces significant headwinds. Republicans have begun their attacks on the US Citizen Act, deriding it as “dead on arrival”, a “blanket amnesty”, and “America last”. For the time being, we can expect the Administration to make adjustments to immigration rules by Executive Order, such as the February 18 temporary guidance to the Immigration and Customs Enforcement Agency requiring immigration agents to seek approval before trying to deport individuals who do not present national security or border security threats such as felony convictions or recent illegal border crossings.

Concerted efforts to renew EB-5 Immigrant Investor Program due to expire in June

Congress also must take steps regarding the EB-5 Immigrant Investor Program, which is set to expire on 30 June. (Renewal is no longer automatic through pending legislation; this decoupling occurred in the Consolidated Appropriations Act signed on 27 December 2020.) Senator Chuck Grassley (R-IA) and Senator Patrick Leahy (D-VT) are trying to move their bipartisan EB-5 Reform and Integrity Act, which would renew the program through September 2024 and reform specific provisos relating to regional centers. A national trade association — Invest In the USA —is promoting the Grassley–Leahy bill, drawing support from the hotel and lodging industry, the real estate industry, national and local chambers of commerce, economic development organizations, and mayors. While there may not be opposition to the bill, moving legislation at all has been thorny in the US Congress.

All immigrant visa applicants are facing long wait times, though some help may be on the way. On 24 February, President Biden ended the order by former President Trump to delay processing on most categories of green cards processed overseas (EB-5 and many US-based categories had been excepted.) The damage has been significant: the number of immigrant visa cases pending interviews at the National Visa Center in February 2021 stands at 473,000, compared to 75,000 in January 2020.

On 31 March, the Biden Administration allowed the expiration of the ban on H1B and other forms of temporary work visas, imposed last June as a measure to protect US jobs during the pandemic.  

Travel industry calls for borders to remain open in Latin America and the Caribbean

Meanwhile, Latin America’s already-burdened economies face further constraints on travel and mobility. In mid-January, the International Air Transport Association and a group of tourism and travel organizations issued a call for Latin American and Caribbean governments to stop imposing ad hoc travel restrictions and closures, which “roll back the gains” made for airline travel through careful re-openings in 2020. In particular, the statement notes the harmful impact of border closures, which do not in fact control disease transmission. Instead, the group says, governments should follow World Health Organization guidelines to send a lifeline to damaged sectors such as travel and tourism, while safely controlling pandemic risks: “standardized protocols and pre-testing of passengers will ensure that keeping borders open does not pose a risk of contagion.”

Mirroring the immigration debate brewing in the US, nations of the western hemisphere must decide — expeditiously — what mix of mobility and caution is advisable for their citizens and their economies.

References

Bill 6, Congress.gov §. Accessed March 17, 2021.

Bill 2540, Congress.gov §. Accessed March 17, 2021.

Bill 5038, Congress.gov §. Accessed March 17, 2021.

Fact Sheet: President Biden Sends Immigration Bill to Congress as Part of His Commitment to Modernize Our Immigration System.” The White House. The United States Government, January 20, 2021.

Home.” IIUSA. Invest In the USA, February 18, 2021.

ICE Announces Temporary Guidelines for Its Enforcement and Removal Operations.” ICE. U.S. Department of Homeland Security, February 18, 2021.

New Travel Restrictions Across Latin America & the Caribbean Threaten Economic Recovery.” IATA. International Air Transport Association, January 11, 2021.

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