An immigrant waves a flag during a naturalization ceremony in San Diego in 2018. Photo by Chris Stone

Democrats on Thursday formally introduced President Joe Biden’s sweeping immigration bill in Congress, a measure that would provide a path to citizenship for an estimated 11 million immigrants in the country, but which faces long odds to passage.

The bill would greatly increase both family-based and employment-based legal immigration and allow certain previously deported immigrants to apply to return for humanitarian reasons. Key elements of the legislation were first unveiled in January.

The 353-page bill takes an aggressive pro-immigration approach. It has not received public support from Republicans, many of whom are still under the sway of former President Donald Trump, an immigration hardliner, making it unlikely that it will be enacted.

Democrats hold a majority in the House of Representatives, but the Senate is split 50-50, with Vice President Kamala Harris as the tie-breaking vote. Democrats would need to win over 10 Senate Republicans to avoid a “filibuster,” a procedural hurdle that can delay or block legislation from coming to a vote.

“We know the path forward will demand negotiations with others, but we are not going to make concessions out of the gate,” New Jersey Sen. Robert Menendez, who will be the lead sponsor of the bill in the Senate, said on a call with reporters. “We will never win an argument that we don’t have the courage to make.”

Menendez said he had spoken with some Republican senators who are interested in parts of the legislation, but declined to name the lawmakers. Democrats would consider any avenue to accomplish immigration reform, including using a procedural move to pass a bill in the Senate with only 51 votes, he added.

“I salute the president for putting forth the legislation that he did,” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said on Thursday during a separate news conference. “There are others that want to do piecemeal and that may be a good approach, too.”

Some Republican senators have already expressed opposition to major provisions of the Biden bill.

Representative John Katko, the top Republican on the House Homeland Security Committee, criticized the legislation in a statement on Thursday, calling it an “unserious effort” that fails to secure U.S. borders or close “loopholes” in the legal immigration system.

But in a statement, San Diego Mayor Todd Gloria said he was pleased with the package, which he lobbied for in January in a letter to the Biden administration and congressional leadership.

“The legislative package released today incorporates many of those key priorities – specifically, providing a pathway to citizenship for our undocumented residents, keeping families together with a streamlined immigration system, and promoting immigrant and refugee integration,” he said. 

“As America’s largest border city, we are a shining example of how a binational region built on partnership, humanity, and a welcoming approach can thrive.  I look forward to continue working directly with the Biden administration and our congressional delegation to help get this effort across the finish line to finally make immigration reform in America a reality.”

Democrats are also pushing ahead with several smaller-scale immigration bills, including a measure that would offer a path to citizenship to so-called “Dreamer” immigrants who were brought illegally to the United States as children.

In addition to sweeping legalization measures, Biden’s proposal would make many smaller changes, including lifting English-language citizenship requirements for certain permanent residents over the age of 50, according to a section-by-section summary of the bill seen by Reuters.

Updated at 4:30 p.m. Feb. 18, 2021

Ken Stone contributed to this report.

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