House Opens Door for Citizenship to Dreamers, Migrant Workers

March 19, 2021 by Dan McCue
Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., joined at right by Rep. Raul Ruiz, D-Calif., chairman of the House Hispanic Caucus, and Rep. Lucille Roybal-Allard, D-Calif., discusses the upcoming vote on the American Dream and Promise Act of 2021, a bill to help reform the immigration system, at the Capitol in Washington, Thursday, March 18, 2021. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

WASHINGTON — The House voted Thursday to open a pathway to citizenship for Dreamers, migrant farm workers and other immigrants who’ve fled war or natural disasters in their home countries.

On a near party-line 228-197 vote, lawmakers approved one bill offering legal status to around 2 million Dreamers, brought to the U.S. illegally as children, and hundreds of thousands of migrants admitted for humanitarian reasons from a dozen troubled countries.

Nine largely moderate Republicans joined all Democrats in backing the Dreamers bill.

The House approved similar versions of the Dreamer and farm worker bills in 2019. Seven Republicans voted for the “Dreamers” bill and 34 backed the farm workers measure that year.

Both 2019 measures died in what was a Republican-run Senate

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 House then voted 247-174 for a second measure creating similar protections for 1 million farm workers who have worked in the U.S. illegally; the government estimates they comprise half the nation’s agricultural laborers.

The second 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.

Both bills hit a wall of opposition from Republicans insistent that any immigration legislation bolster security at the Mexican border, which waves of migrants have tried breaching in recent weeks.

The GOP has accused congressional Democrats of ignoring that problem and President Joe Biden of fueling.

Democrats, however, maintain the Republican leadership in the House is merely playing politics, hoping that by inflaming the issue, they will take over control of the chamber after the 2022 election.

Whether the measures can pass the even more narrowly divided Senate is very much an open question.

Speaking with reporters earlier this week, House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer noted that there was widespread bipartisan support in the past for the ideas enshired in the measures passed today, and he was hopeful that support would manifest itself again – particular with numerous polls showing the measures enjoy considerable support among the American people.

“Everyone I talked to about the 2013 immigration bill, at that point in time, understood that the immigration system is broken. Because it is broken,” Hoyer said. “There is not an effective or efficient path for people to seek asylum or to seek entry into the United States.”

Of Republican opposition to the bills passed Thursday, Hoyer said in advance of the vote that the Republicans see immigration “as a political football to impart fear and apprehension.”

Hoyer also told reporters on the call that the bills passed Thursday are only a first act.

When you talk about comprehensive immigration reform, you’re talking about a large piece of legislation with a lot of moving parts that we have to come to agreement on,” he said. “That’s what we’re going to be working on over the next few months, and it is my expectation that we will bring  a comprehensive immigration reform bill to the floor.”

Prior to Thursday’s vote, Democrats said their measures were aimed at addressing groups of immigrants who deserve to be helped.

“They’re so much of our country,” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said of Dreamers, who like many immigrants have held frontline jobs during the pandemic. “These immigrant communities strengthen, enrich and ennoble our nation, and they must be allowed to stay.”

Neither House measure would directly affect those trying to cross the boundary from Mexico.

Republicans criticized them anyway for lacking border security provisions and turned the debate into an opportunity to lambast Biden, who’s ridden a wave of popularity since taking office and winning a massive COVID-19 relief package.

“It is a Biden border crisis, and it is spinning out of control,” said House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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