Stand up for the facts!

Misinformation isn't going away just because it's a new year. Support trusted, factual information with a tax deductible contribution to PolitiFact.

More Info

I would like to contribute

Then-Vice President Joe Biden speaks during a news conference in Guatemala City on June 20, 2014. (AP) Then-Vice President Joe Biden speaks during a news conference in Guatemala City on June 20, 2014. (AP)

Then-Vice President Joe Biden speaks during a news conference in Guatemala City on June 20, 2014. (AP)

Paul Specht
By Paul Specht April 27, 2021

Tillis doesn't tell full story about Biden 'amnesty' bill

If Your Time is short

  • U.S. Sen. Thom Tillis, a Republican from North Carolina, says President Biden introduced a bill that offers "amnesty" for immigrants in the country illegally.
  • Immigration experts say the word "amnesty" is so vague and overused that it no longer conveys any specific meaning.
  • However, some say Biden's plan is more lenient than the sweeping immigration law signed by President Reagan in 1986.

U.S. Sen. Thom Tillis says President Joe Biden has failed to live up to his promises on immigration.

The North Carolina Republican goes even further in a recent Fox News op-ed, arguing that Biden attempted to grant "mass amnesty" to immigrants in the country illegally.

"One of his first acts in office was sending an immigration bill to Congress to grant mass amnesty to illegal immigrants," Tillis wrote.

While the op-ed doesn’t specify the bill Tillis is referring to, his office cited the U.S. Citizenship Act of 2021.

So, is Tillis right about Biden’s bill? 

Most experts hesitate to label Biden’s bill as granting "mass amnesty" because it requires immigrants to meet certain criteria along their pathway to citizenship. And while the legislation does appear to open a wider gate than previous legalization efforts, the term "amnesty" is squishy, having been loosely defined and debated for many years.

Biden’s bill is more lenient than the bipartisan "Gang of Eight" proposal in the Senate that gained momentum in 2013. However, experts didn’t agree on whether it’s more lenient than a law enacted in 1986 by President Ronald Reagan, which is considered the modern standard for amnesty bills.

Biden’s plan

Biden’s plan offers what the U.S. News & World Report described as a "two-tier" pathway to citizenship.

A three-year path to citizenship would be available for some farmworkers, immigrants who arrived here illegally when they were children (known as "Dreamers") and people who currently benefit from a Temporary Protected Status designation. The expedited path could affect 3 million people, according to the Migration Policy Institute, a nonpartisan think tank.

An eight-year path to citizenship would be available for all undocumented immigrants living in the United States at the start of 2021. In total, the bill could affect as many as 11 million immigrants. All immigrants would be required to pay taxes and pass background checks.

The bill takes a more comprehensive approach to immigration than previous proposals because it also seeks to reduce visa backlogs, eliminate per-country admission caps, get rid of the one-year deadline for filing asylum claims and expand access to some visas.

If enacted into law, it would fulfill Biden’s promise to create "a roadmap to citizenship for the nearly 11 million people who have been living in and strengthening our country for years."

So, does it call for "mass amnesty?"

What is amnesty?

Amnesty is a loose term that PolitiFact has explored dozens of times. We consulted six experts on the issue. They said the word is used so often and so excessively it’s almost devoid of a specific meaning. 

  • Does the term only apply to bills that offer blanket legalization?
  • Do the criteria for legalization matter?
  • Could it refer to any proposed pathway to citizenship?

Tillis’ office says the U.S. Citizenship Act of 2021 meets the definition of amnesty outlined by a researcher for the Center for Immigration Studies, in a previous fact check about Tillis’ SUCCEED Act.

Steven Camarota, whose group pushes for more limits on immigration, said amnesty basically refers to forgiveness for a crime (meaning Tillis’ SUCCEED Act could qualify as amnesty, despite having stringent citizenship requirements). It’s important to note though that the simple act of being in the United States illegally is not necessarily a crime.

As PolitiFact has noted before, one legal definition of amnesty is that of "a blanket abolition of an offense by the government, with the legal result that those charged or convicted have the charge or conviction wiped out."

Meanwhile, experts have told us the immigration law signed by President Reagan in 1986 often serves as the standard for what qualifies as amnesty.

The Immigration Reform and Control Act, or IRCA, said anyone who had been in the country continuously for about four years when the bill was signed into law, who paid a $185 fine and back taxes and who demonstrated "good moral character" would be granted legal status. Ultimately, the law allowed about 2.7 million people to get green cards.

Comparing proposals

So, how does Biden’s plan compare to other proposals?

Experts say it’s more lenient than the so-called "Gang of Eight" proposal that attained notoriety in 2013 but never became law. That bill would have created a 13-year pathway to citizenship while also allocating billions of dollars to tighten border security.

Is it more lenient than Reagan’s 1986 law? Some experts told us Biden’s law might actually be stricter. Others argue it’s unfair to compare the two, since the immigration issue has changed over the last 30 years.

Biden’s proposal is "much closer to the Gang of Eight bill than to Reagan’s amnesty," said David Leopold, a partner with Ulmer and Berne LLP.

"But unlike those bills, Biden’s bill shifts the paradigm by providing a holistic approach," Leopold said. "It addresses the root causes of migration from Central America by promoting rule of law, security and economic development, strengthening the regional humanitarian responses for refugees and asylum seekers and manages the border."

Edward Alden, the Bernard L. Schwartz senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, says experts have "learned an awful lot since IRCA. 

"The Reagan bill was premised on the notion that a one-time legalization would ‘solve’ the illegal immigration problem. But it paid no attention to what was going on in Mexico, and made no provisions for new legal channels, enhanced border security or employment verification," Alden said.

Ann Lin, associate professor of public policy at the University of Michigan-Ann Arbor, is one of a couple experts who believe Biden’s bill might in some ways be stricter than Reagan’s law. 

Biden’s law "does allow the primary applicant to apply for his/her immediate family dependants at the same time. In that way it is more generous than the 1986 law," Lin said. "On the other hand, because there's a six year period (to become a permanent resident), those dependents are also likely to face a longer time period between application and permanent residence than the 1986 dependents."

"In some ways, the U.S. Citizenship Act is similar" to Reagan’s law, said Kevin R. Johnson, an immigration law expert and dean of the University of California, Davis School of Law.

"However, the proposed act also addresses legal immigration in ways that IRCA did not; the U.S. Citizenship Act has a better chance in my view of allowing many undocumented immigrants to legalize and to avoid the growth of a new undocumented population, like that which occurred after IRCA."

Biden’s plan would "provide a quite wide path to legal status and eventually citizenship," said Julia Gelatt, a senior policy analyst at the nonpartisan Migration Policy Institute. It also "arguably has fewer requirements than Reagan’s bill."

David Bier, an immigration researcher at the Cato Institute, agreed Biden’s bill "has fewer requirements than the Reagan bill."

But Gelatt hesitated to use the term amnesty, noting that Biden’s plan requires applicants to "pay a fee, undergo screening, and pay federal taxes." 

While Reagan’s law required people to "pay a fee, go through normal screenings, show proof of financial resources to ensure self sufficiency, and, to get a green card, show basic knowledge of English and U.S. history and government," the Biden bill includes "the fee and background checks, but not documentation of self-sufficiency or the extra English/civics requirement."

Overall, Biden’s plan is "not a completely open path to legal status," Gelatt said. "But it is a broader and faster legalization pathway than others that have been proposed in recent years."

Our ruling

Tillis said: "One of his first acts in office was sending an immigration bill to Congress to grant mass amnesty to illegal immigrants."

It’s fair to say that Biden’s plan would offer a wider path to citizenship than other proposals in recent years. However, experts avoid the word amnesty because it’s a vague term that doesn’t convey that criteria applicants must meet in order to qualify for citizenship.

On balance, we rate this claim Half True.

Our Sources

Op-ed by U.S. Sen. Thom Tillis, "Biden's border crisis – he promised security, dignity to migrants. This is how he's failed," posted by Fox News on April 19, 2021.

Story by the U.S. News & World Report, "Democrats Introduce Biden’s Major Immigration Reform Bill," posted Feb. 21, 2021.

Bill, the U.S. Citizenship Act of 2021.

Email exchange with David Leopold, a partner with Ulmer and Berne LLP.

Email exchange with Edward Alden, the Bernard L. Schwartz senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.

Email exchange with Ann Lin, associate professor of public policy at the University of Michigan-Ann Arbor.

Email exchange with Kevin R. Johnson, an immigration law expert and dean of the University of California, Davis School of Law.

Email exchange with Julia Gelatt, a senior policy analyst at the nonpartisan Migration Policy Institute.

Email exchange with David Bier, an immigration researcher at the Cato Institute.

Fact sheet from the White House, "President Biden Sends Immigration Bill to Congress as Part of His Commitment to Modernize our Immigration System," posted Jan. 20, 2021.

Stories by PolitiFact, "Joe Biden border wall criticism hits mark but blanket amnesty misses," posted Feb. 17, 2021; "Garland Tucker mostly wrong about Tillis supporting 'amnesty'," posted June 5, 2019; "Did Adam Putnam endorse the Gang of Eight immigration amnesty?" posted June 29, 2018; "Ann Coulter says Trump granted amnesty to nearly 100,000 'Dreamers.' Is that true?" posted June 21, 2017; "Sen. Tom Cotton misleads in claim about Dream Act amnesty," posted Sept. 26, 2017; "Patrick Murphy attacks Marco Rubio's record on immigration, Dreamers," posted Oct. 17, 2016; "Did Marco Rubio flip flop on amnesty?" posted Jan. 29, 2016; "Ted Cruz: most GOP candidates 'have supported amnesty'" posted Aug. 7, 2015; "The Senate takes up immigration," posted May 9, 2013.

 "Sen. Marco Rubio says immigration bill is not amnesty, posted April 17, 2013.

Browse the Truth-O-Meter

More by Paul Specht

Tillis doesn't tell full story about Biden 'amnesty' bill

Support independent fact-checking.
Become a member!

In a world of wild talk and fake news, help us stand up for the facts.

Sign me up