November 30, 2023

Protesters hold illuminated signs during a rally supporting the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program or the Dream Act outside the U.S. Capitol in Washington, DC on January 18, 2018.

Zach Gibson | Bloomberg | Getty Images

House Democrats are expected this week to step up their first immigration reform efforts during the ongoing Congress, trying to address an issue that has preoccupied lawmakers for years.

The House will examine two bills, each one dealing with part of the comprehensive immigration reform proposed in White House legislation introduced in February. This package appears doomed in the Senate, where it would require 10 Republican votes. GOP legislators have panned the bill as a “blanket amnesty”.

The push comes as President Joe Biden’s administration grapples with a flood of unaccompanied minors on the southern Mexican border. The influx has resulted in record numbers of children being held in government detention centers, commemorating the 2019 crisis that faced former President Donald Trump.

While Trump was declaring an emergency at the time, the Biden administration refused and shied away from saying that there was a “crisis”. The administration ordered the Federal Agency for Disaster Protection to house and transfer the children at the weekend.

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Democrats, who have a slim majority in the House of Representatives and struggle to control the evenly divided Senate, hope that a step-by-step approach to immigration can find more support from both parties. However, it is not yet clear whether Republicans will stand behind the effort.

A bill, the American Dream and Promise Act, would provide a route to citizenship for millions of immigrants known as “dreamers.” Another law, the Agricultural Workforce Modernization Act, would provide a route to the legal status of agricultural workers with a migrant background.

The development on the border, which Republicans have cited as an example of the Biden government’s ineptitude with regard to immigration, appears to dim the prospect of a bipartisan deal on this issue in the near future. On Monday, Senator Lindsey Graham, RS.C., a major supporter of the Senate version of the Dream Act, said that a bipartisan deal was unlikely to come about “until you stop the flow”.

What would the bills do?

The dream law of the house, according to its authors, would create a path to citizenship for about 2.5 million people. According to an analysis by the Migration Policy Institute, a think tank in Washington, more than 4.4 million would be eligible for permanent legal residency in the United States.

The dream law would apply to immigrants who are protected under the Deferred Action on the Arrival of Children program run by former President Barack Obama who meet certain job or educational requirements. The law would also offer those in the country with temporary protection status a route to citizenship, a kind of humanitarian term for immigrants from crisis countries.

The public broadly supports providing a route to citizenship for immigrants who were brought into the country illegally as children. A poll by the Pew Research Center in June found that nearly three-quarters of Americans were in favor of such a measure.

The Dream Act doesn’t go as far as Biden’s comprehensive plan that would provide a route to citizenship for most of the 11 million undocumented immigrants in the United States. Some activist groups, including Human Rights Watch, have criticized them for containing provisions that limit benefits for those convicted of certain crimes as children. A Senate version of the bill written by Graham and Senator Dick Durbin, D-Ill., Lacks these provisions.

The Farm Workers Modernization Act provides that some farm workers in the country are illegally granted temporary legal status if they have worked at least 180 days in the past two years.

Workers can also get green cards under the bill if they pay a fine and work in agriculture for between four and eight more years, depending on how long they’ve been in the industry. The bill would also modernize the H-2A program for agricultural temporary workers.

Legal challenges could influence the debate

It is possible that continued questioning of the legality of the DACA program could dramatically change the contours and urgency of the immigration debate. A federal judge in Houston is currently weighing a lawsuit from Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton, a Republican who has pledged to court the Biden government.

In June, the Supreme Court rejected efforts by the Trump administration to repeal the DACA program, which at the time was protecting approximately 700,000 people from deportation. The court ruled that the administration did not follow the appropriate protocol in terminating the DACA, although this did not affect the legality of the program at all.

Paxton’s lawsuit alleging that Obama has exceeded his executive powers is before District Judge Andrew Hanen, a conservative George W. Bush appointee warned by lawyers that the program is likely to be illegal. Any decision would likely be appealed, although a majority of 6 to 3 Republicans in the Supreme Court gives little cause for optimism among supporters of the DACA.

The Biden government has already dealt with early legal setbacks in the implementation of its immigration agenda. A federal judge temporarily blocked the president’s efforts to halt most deportations for 100 days within a week of his inauguration and extended the order in February.

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