WASHINGTON – Armed with hope for the first time in years that immigration legislation can pass through Congress, Democrats on Capitol Hill are moving forward this week on bills that could help create a pathway to citizenship for millions of individuals living in the USA without legal status.
The House will begin action on both the American Dream and Promise Act and the Farm Workforce Modernization Act, House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer’soffice said Thursday.
Congress has struggled for decades to pass a comprehensive immigration overhaul.
The last comprehensive bill, sponsored by a group of bipartisan senators, was brought up in 2013. That legislation, which included a path to citizenship for millions of undocumented immigrants and tighter border security, passed the Senate with bipartisan support but died in the House. It’s been more than three decades since Congress last enacted broad immigration changes.
The bills the House will take up are separate from President Joe Biden’s comprehensive immigration plan – the U.S. Citizenship Act of 2021 – which would create an eight-year pathway to citizenship for nearly 11 million undocumented immigrants, with a shorter pathway available for farmworkers and recipients of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), a program that allows people brought to the country illegally as children to stay.
Biden’s immigration bill probably will face an uphill battle in Congress, particularly in a Senate split 50-50 where all Democrats and at least 10 Republicans would need to vote in favor of the bill to avoid a filibuster.
Democrats and activists expect the two standalone bills moving through the House have a better chance of passing the full Congress. The Dream Act and the Farm Workforce Modernization Act both passed in the House in 2019, but the legislation was never brought up in the Republican-controlled Senate.
Rep. Zoe Lofgren, D-Calif., a co-sponsor of the Farm Workforce Modernization Act, said Thursday that she is “hopeful” about the legislation’s chances in the Senate. She added that she’s spoken with several senators working to move the legislation forward in that chamber.
“Is that a guarantee? Of course not,” she said. “But there is strong interest to getting this done, both for employers and employees, Republicans and Democrats. We’re not going to just vote on it and let it go. We’re going to continue to engage with our friends on the other side of the building in the U.S. Senate, both Republicans and Democrats, and see if we can get this done.”
Several activist groups have voiced support for these bills, pushing Democrats and the Biden administration to move quickly on offering protections for millions of undocumented immigrants.
“We want to achieve a breakthrough in the next few months, said Frank Sharry, executive director of America’s Voice, and the organization’s “strategy is to push for the things that can pass in the House.” If those bills pass, it could create momentum to take up the full comprehensive immigration reform proposed by Biden, he said.
“If we succeed in legalizing millions of undocumented immigrants, but … there’s some people who are left out … we’ll celebrate and then get back to work to legalize the rest,” Sharry said.
Greisa Martínez Rosas, executive director for United We Dream, said the bills are part of multiple avenues Democrats are taking to get immigration reform through Congress.
Some activists urge lawmakers to include a pathway to legalization for DACA recipients, also called “Dreamers,” farmworkers and essential workers in other legislation, such as the next package in Biden’s COVID-19 recovery plan, which is likely to largely focus on infrastructure. A new bill has yet to be introduced in Congress for the next phase of recovery from the coronavirus pandemic.
“There’s no way that we’re leaving 2021 without permanent protections for millions of undocumented people,” Martínez Rosas said.
Here’s what each of the bills moving through the House this week would cover:
American Dream and Promise Act
The American Dream and Promise Act would create a pathway to legal status for “Dreamers,” the term used to describe undocumented individuals who were brought to the USA as children. The legislation would grant conditional permanent resident status for 10 years and cancel removal proceedings if people meet certain requirements. Those requirements include being physically present in the USA on or before Jan. 1, 2021, being 18 years old or younger on the initial date of entry into the USA and not having been convicted of crimes such as domestic violence, sexual assault or human trafficking.
Under the legislation, “Dreamers” could gain full lawful permanent resident status by either acquiring a degree from a university or college, completing at least two years of military service or being employed for at least three years where they had employment authorization for 75% of the time they were employed.
The bill includes protections and a pathway to citizenship for individuals who were eligible for Temporary Protected Status (TPS) on or before Sept. 17, 2017, and individuals who had Deferred Enforced Departure (DED) status as of Jan. 20, 2021. Individuals who are beneficiaries of either of those programs and have been in the USA for three years before the act’s enactment are eligible for the protections and pathway to citizenship.
The Farm Workforce Modernization Act
This bill would create a process for farmworkers to earn temporary status as Certified Agricultural Workers for individuals who have worked at least 180 days in agriculture over the last 2 years. Spouses and children could also apply for temporary status under the act.
The legislation would create a pathway for workers to get a green card by paying a $1,000 fine and engaging in additional agricultural work depending on how long they have worked in agriculture in the USA.
The bill would streamline the process to get an H-2A visa, which allows foreign citizens into the country for temporary agricultural work.
Reach Rebecca Morin at Twitter @RebeccaMorin_