House to vote on immigration bills with paths to citizenship

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The House is set to vote Thursday on two proposals that would legalize subsets of the estimated 11 million immigrants living in the U.S. without legal permission, as Democrats gauge the chances of approving immigration legislation and sending it to President Biden’s desk.

The bills are expected to pass in the Democratic-controlled House and would, if enacted, place millions of undocumented immigrants on different pathways to U.S. citizenship, including farmworkers and those who arrived in the country as children. 

The votes come as the administration scrambles to confront the enormous logistical challenges of processing and housing the soaring number of unaccompanied migrant children arriving at the southern border.  

The measures were recently reintroduced after passing the House in 2019 with some Republican support. Given that Mr. Biden’s sweeping plan to legalize most of the country’s undocumented population has been met with broad Republican rejection, the stand-alone bills may represent Democrats’ best chance of getting immigration legislation through the evenly divided Senate.

If signed into law, the American Dream and Promise Act would allow more than 2.3 million “Dreamers,” or unauthorized immigrants who came to the U.S. as minors, as well as beneficiaries of certain temporary humanitarian programs, to gain permanent legal status.

Recipients of the Obama-era Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program and other undocumented immigrants brought to the country before age 18 would be allowed to apply for a 10-year period of conditional permanent residence if they satisfy several requirements. Would-be applicants would be eligible to apply for permanent residence if they earned a college degree or enrolled in a bachelor’s program for two years; if they served in the military for at least two years; or if they worked in the U.S. for a three-year period.

More than 300,000 immigrants living in the U.S. with Temporary Protected Status and Deferred Enforced Departure, two provisional forms of humanitarian relief, would automatically be eligible to apply for permanent residency under the bill if they meet the eligibility rules, which include having lived in the U.S. for at least three years.

Unlike its 2019 version, the Dream Act being voted on Thursday would also allow children of temporary U.S. work visa holders trapped in the backlogged employment-based green card process to adjust their status.

Seven Republican members of Congress joined 230 Democrats to pass the 2019 version of the House Dream Act, which has been spearheaded by California Congresswoman Lucille Roybal-Allard.

Immigrant advocates and many Democrats consider passing the Dream Act as an urgent priority due to the legal cloud hanging over the DACA program. While Mr. Biden has reversed former President Donald Trump’s efforts to end DACA, a federal judge in Texas is expected to rule on the legality of the program. 

The second bill that will be considered Thursday, the Farm Workforce Modernization Act, would allow hundreds of thousands of immigrant farmworkers to apply for a temporary and renewable immigration status if they have worked at least 180 days in the U.S. during a 2-year period.

Eligible workers would be allowed to request green cards if they complete four or eight years of additional agricultural work, depending on whether they have performed such work for more than or less than 10 years.

The proposal, introduced by Democratic Congresswoman Zoe Lofgren and Republican Congressman Dan Newhouse, would also make several changes to the H-2A visa program for agricultural workers, including making visas valid for three years.

In December 2019, the Farm Workforce Modernization Act passed the House through a 260-165 vote, with more than 20 Republican lawmakers voting with Democrats to approve the plan.

Last month, congressional Democrats unveiled a broad immigration overhaul proposal based on an outline crafted by Mr. Biden’s team. Along with expanding legal immigration, investing in Central America and refocusing border controls, the bill would create a massive, two-tier legalization program for a broad group of immigrants living in the U.S. without authorization.

Dreamers, TPS holders and farmworkers would be automatically eligible for green cards, while other undocumented immigrants could request temporary legal status. The latter group could request green cards after five years with the interim status.

While it earned praise from progressives, the plan championed by Mr. Biden has yet to garner any public Republican support in Congress. Earlier this week, Illinois Senator Dick Durbin, the second-highest ranking Democrat in the Senate, suggested that Speaker Nancy Pelosi did not yet have enough votes in the House to secure the bill’s passage there.

“I think that indicates where it is in the Senate as well,” Durbin told reporters, saying he would start negotiating with Republican senators to see if they would support the stand-alone bills for Dreamers, TPS holders and farmworkers.

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