Thirteen immigrants officially become new U.S. citizens in a special naturalization ceremony on Flag Day at the historic Betsy Ross House in Philadelphia on June 14, 2019.

Thirteen immigrants officially become new U.S. citizens in a special naturalization ceremony on Flag Day at the historic Betsy Ross House in Philadelphia on June 14, 2019. Jana Shea/

Federal Hiring and Workforce Reforms Included in Biden's Immigration Package

The U.S. Citizenship Act would take steps to address major operational hurdles to boosting legal immigration.

President Biden and congressional Democrats unveiled immigration overhaul legislation on Thursday that would significantly impact operations at several federal agencies and walk back initiatives put in place under the Trump administration. 

The 2021 U.S. Citizenship Act is largely focused on boosting legal immigration, raising caps on who is allowed into the country and creating a pathway to citizenship for undocumented people already living in the United States. If passed, the measure is likely to face significant implementation hurdles across a system already facing severe delays, staffing shortages and budget crises. To that end, the bill would seek to reduce the backlog of asylum cases and would authorize appropriations to the cash-strapped U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services to implement related reforms. To assist with the other provisions of the bill, the Homeland Security Department would be authorized to bring on as many term, part-time and temporary employees as it would need. 

New employees hired by Customs and Border Protection and Immigration and Customs Enforcement would receive onboarding training regarding accountability, standards for professional and ethical conduct, and oversight. The training would focus on community policing, cultural awareness and strategies for interacting with vulnerable populations. All  employees would have a “continuing education” requirement for training on individuals’ civil and constitutional rights as well as the department’s use-of-force policies. Homeland Security would have to develop the use-of-force policies in conjunction with law enforcement and civil rights groups to protect “public safety and national security.” The department would be required to issue a public report within 24 hours of any use-of-force incident that resulted in serious injury or death. 

Border Patrol specifically would be tasked with training some of its agents for emergency medical technician and paramedic certification, who would then be eligible for salary increases of between 5% and 10%. The agency came under fire in recent years after a spate of children died in its care. CBP would face a requirement to have one Office of Professional Responsibility special agent on staff for every 30 officers deployed by the agency.

To alleviate the severe backlog of cases currently making their way through the immigration system, the Justice Department would be required to hire more than 200 new immigration judges over the next four years, an effort that follows a Trump administration push to hire more immigration judges. There are currently nearly 1.3 million pending cases before the court, housed within Justice’s Executive Office of Immigration Review. The judges also would receive  expanded training and continuing education on immigration law.

Immigration judges themselves have said that just hiring more judges alone would not resolve the issues that have contributed to a ballooning backlog. They have advocated for their court’s removal from the executive branch and to have more latitude in how they conduct proceedings. The Democrats’ bill did not provide those changes, but did seek to smooth operations through technology upgrades, process tweaks and increased access to counsel for immigrants. 

The White House acknowledged the legislation is likely to change as it works its way through Congress, where it will require bipartisan support unless Democrats opt to move the package through the reconciliation process. 

“The sausage that comes out of the machine on the other side will look different than the sausage that comes out today,” White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said on Thursday.

As the bill winds its way through the legislative process, operational changes are already being implemented at Homeland Security. ICE issued new directives to employees on Thursday to refocus its arrests on undocumented immigrants posing national security threats or who recently crossed the border, according to a BuzzFeed report. Agency leadership said in an email to staff the policy would help prioritize ICE’s “limited resources.” Biden is implementing a new direction at the department after the Trump administration sought to give its law enforcement personnel broad discretion in making arrests and prioritize virtually all undocumented immigrants for arrest and expedited removal. 

The pivot from the Trump era was also notable for what Biden and congressional Democrats omitted from their bill, including any hiring surge at CBP and ICE. One of Trump’s first initiatives was to push for 15,000 new law enforcement employees at those agencies, an effort that never really got off the ground.