WASHINGTON (AP) — Democratic bills opening a gateway to citizenship for over 3 million young “Dreamers” and farm worker immigrants headed toward House passage Thursday, but Republican opposition means any legislation on the issue faces a steep climb before it can reach President Joe Biden's desk.
The bills represent Democrats' initial steps this year toward Biden's goal of sweeping legislation making citizenship possible for all 11 million immigrants estimated to be in the U.S. illegally. But they ran into a wall of opposition by Republicans, who have been singularly focused on a rising wave of migrants trying to cross the border from Mexico, a surge they've blamed on Biden.
GOP resistance signaled that the issue, which has stymied major progress in Congress for years, has bleak prospects this year as well, especially in the evenly divided Senate. That means immigration could well become a battlefield in next year’s elections, when Republicans hope to regain House and Senate control.
“Unfortunately, what we are hearing is as much fearmongering as possible by our Republican colleagues about immigrants," said Rep. Veronica Escobar, D-Texas.
Although neither bill debated Thursday would affect those trying to cross the border in recent weeks, Republicans criticized both measures for lacking provisions that would strengthen border security.
“The tidal wave is here," said Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio. “And the Democrats' answer is amnesty."
One measure would help roughly 2 million “Dreamers” — immigrants brought to the U.S. illegally as children — and migrants who have fled armed conflicts or natural disasters from a dozen countries stay in the U.S. and give them a chance for citizenship. The other would do the same for around 1 million farm workers in the U.S. illegally, a group that represents about half the country's agricultural laborers.
Biden strongly supports both measures. White House press secretary Jen Psaki told reporters that the bills were “critical milestones toward much needed relief for the millions of individuals who call the United States home."
Work on the legislation comes as the number of migrants attempting to cross the border has been growing since April, with the 100,441 reported last month the highest level since March 2019. Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas said Tuesday that figure is on track to reach a 20-year high.
Scores of groups supporting the bills include the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. Among those arrayed in opposition is the conservative Heritage Action for America.
The House approved similar versions of both bills in 2019. Seven Republicans voted for the “Dreamers” bill and 34 backed the farm workers measure that year, but GOP support was expected to plummet this time as the party rallies behind demands for stiffer border restrictions.
Both 2019 measures died in what was a Republican-run Senate and never would have received the signature of Donald Trump, who spent his four years as president constricting legal and illegal immigration.
In contrast, Biden has suspended work on Trump's wall along the Mexican border, ended his separation of young children from their migrant families and allowed apprehended minors to stay in the U.S. as officials decide if they can legally remain. He has also turned away most single adults and families.
No. 2 Senate Democrat Dick Durbin of Illinois said this week that he saw no pathway for an immigration overhaul this year, citing GOP demands for tough border enforcement provisions. Democrats would likely need at least 10 GOP votes in the 50-50 chamber to pass immigration legislation.
The “Dreamer” bill would grant conditional legal status for 10 years to many immigrants up to age 18 who were brought into the U.S. illegally before this year. They'd have to graduate from high school or have equivalent educational credentials, not have serious criminal records and meet other conditions.
To attain legal permanent residence, often called a green card, they'd have to obtain a higher education degree, serve in the military or be employed for at least three years. Like all others with green cards, they could then apply for citizenship after five years.
The measure would also grant green cards to an estimated 400,000 immigrants with temporary protected status, which allows temporary residence to people who have fled violence or natural disasters in a dozen countries.
The other bill would let immigrant farm workers who've worked in the country illegally over the past two years — along their spouses and children — get certified agriculture worker status. That would let them remain in the U.S. for renewable 5 1/2-year periods.
To earn green cards, they would have to pay a $1,000 fine and work for up to an additional eight years, depending on how long they've already held farm jobs.
The legislation would also cap wage increases, streamline the process for employers to get H-2A visas that let immigrants work legally on farm jobs and phase in a mandatory system for electronically verifying that agriculture workers are in the U.S. legally.
Nearly half the nation's 2.4 million farm workers are in the U.S. illegally, according to Labor Department data from 2016.