House Democrats are teeing up their next major piece of legislation: an immigration bill that would allow as many as 2.5 million people to apply for legal status and put them on a path that could ultimately lead to US citizenship.
The bill, HR 6 — called the Dream and Promise Act — combines the longstanding DREAM Act, a legalization bill for unauthorized immigrants who came to the US as children, with a proposal to allow some immigrants with temporary humanitarian protections to apply for permanent legal status.
What unites the two groups of immigrants is that both have put down roots in the US, generally living here for more (sometimes much more) than a decade but without permanent status. “Living with uncertainty has defined most of my 16 years in the United States,” Jessica Garcia, a 21-year-old DACA recipient, said at a press conference Tuesday formally unveiling the bill.
Both groups also stand to lose protections under President Donald Trump. Trump has moved to end the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, which protects many DREAMers from deportation, and has declined to renew temporary protections for hundreds of thousands of immigrants under the Temporary Protected Status and Deferred Enforced Departure humanitarian programs.
“We are not going to allow Donald Trump to send them back, and we are not going to ask them to live in a constant state of fear and uncertainty,” said Rep. Nydia Velázquez (D-NY), who introduced the bill alongside Rep. Lucille Roybal-Allard (D-CA) and Rep. Yvette Clarke (D-NY) at Tuesday’s press conference.
If passed, HR 6 would represent the most generous immigration bill since the Reagan “amnesty” of 1986. But while it is extremely likely to pass the House without major changes, it is not going to pass the Republican Senate — or be signed by Trump — in its current form.
Still, the bill matters because it’s a statement of the Democratic consensus on immigration. That may come into play if Trump and Republicans make another effort to pass an immigration bill of their own — or if Congress is spurred into action again by the threat of an end to DACA. And as Democratic 2020 candidates start articulating their own visions of the presidency, and set their priorities for what they’d do if elected, the bill is one marker of where the party stands.
What the bill would do
HR 6 targets two different groups of immigrants who don’t currently have a way to apply for permanent legal status in the US. The first group is DREAMers, or unauthorized immigrants who arrived in the US as children; the second group is immigrants who have been protected due to war or natural disaster in their home countries.
Most of this second group has Temporary Protected Status (TPS), a legal status given on a country-by-country basis — these immigrants, mostly from El Salvador, Honduras, and Haiti, have generally been in the US for decades. It also includes hundreds of Liberians with a lesser protection called Deferred Enforced Departure.
Many of these immigrants are currently protected from deportation; TPS gives immigrants temporary legal status and about 675,000 DREAMers are currently protected under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program created by President Obama in 2012. The Trump administration is trying to end DACA and to sunset TPS for most of its recipients (most of whom come from El Salvador, Honduras, and Haiti). Both efforts are currently held up in federal court. The DED protections for Liberians, however, are currently set to expire at the end of March.
Under HR 6, all of these — DREAMers and humanitarian protectees alike — would be allowed to apply for permanent legal status.
The humanitarian protectees (TPS and DED holders) who’ve been in the US since fall 2016 would simply be allowed to apply for green cards (legal permanent residency), which they can’t do right now unless they qualify through other means. After having a green card for five years, they’d be allowed to apply for citizenship, just like any other green card holder.
For DREAMers — whether or not they currently have DACA — the path would be a little more complicated. They’d be allowed to apply for “conditional permanent residency,” which they’d be granted under certain conditions:
- They arrived in the US before turning 18 and had been in the US for at least four years
- They weren’t convicted of a felony or three separate misdemeanors involving total jail time of 90 days
- They have a high school diploma or GED, or are enrolled in a program to get a high school diploma or GED
- They can pass background checks and a few other standard eligibility requirements
Conditional status would last for 10 years. But DREAMers with conditional status would be able to apply for green cards at any time if they got a degree from a higher ed institution (or completed two years in good standing of a bachelor’s or technical program), served for two years in the military, or worked for three years.
There’s no official or think tank estimate of how many people would be affected by the current bill. A previous version of the DREAM Act, introduced in 2017, would have allowed about 2.1 million people to apply for status (though not all of them would have qualified for it immediately, especially based on educational requirements.
HR 6 is slightly more generous than the 2017 version — especially in allowing people who are enrolled in a diploma or GED program but don’t have one to get legal status. There are also at least 300,000 — and as many as 440,000 — additional immigrants with TPS and DED not covered by the 2017 act who’d qualify to apply for green cards.
So in total, it’s fair to estimate that about 2.5 million immigrants would be able to apply for legal status as a result of this bill — many of whom would get green cards and, ultimately, citizenship.
HR 6 won’t pass into law in its current form. But it reflects a new Democratic consensus.
The last time Democrats held the House of Representatives, in 2010, one of the last bills they passed was the DREAM Act. That version was much less generous than the current version; it would have affected about 1.5 million immigrants. And, of course, it didn’t address TPS or DED.
Since 2010, though, legalization of immigrants has become a Democratic issue instead of a bipartisan or bipartisan-ish one. That’s mobilized the left of the party’s caucus and encouraged the center to go along.
Furthermore, the Trump presidency has made immigration a much easier issue for Democrats. The people countermobilized against the administration — the “resistance” — are eager to hear Democrats denounce Trump’s rhetoric and vision as “not who we are.” And the administration’s unprecedentedly aggressive immigration agenda has given Democrats something to oppose, which is much easier than endorsing a particular alternative.
Now that Democrats hold one chamber of Congress, though — and are gearing up for 2020 — they have both more opportunity and more pressure to put forward an agenda of their own.
HR 6 doesn’t reflect the full scope of that agenda. Most members of Congress who spoke Tuesday insisted that after this bill passes (it won’t), they’d want to get to work on “comprehensive immigration reform.” Pretty much every Democrat in Congress agrees that legalization needs to be available to all 11 million unauthorized immigrants in the US.
But there might not be a Democratic consensus on “comprehensive immigration reform” — which in its previous iterations, including a bill that passed the Senate in 2013, has included a lot of increased enforcement and border spending. Some progressives have started challenging Democrats to oppose any funding for border barriers or any expansion of enforcement budgets; others continue to assume that such things would be a worthwhile trade-off for legalizing millions of immigrants.
There is a Democratic consensus that the immigrants who currently have the most to lose under Trump — TPS holders with legal status, DACA and DED recipients with deportation protections, and other DREAMers who could lose the land of their upbringing if deported — should be not only allowed to stay in the US but officially recognized and given the opportunity to become full citizens. And there is a consensus that that shouldn’t require an enforcement trade-off.
It’s not a full immigration platform. But it’s the place where Democrats appear to feel they have the best leverage against Trump on his signature issue.