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The House’s piecemeal immigration reform, explained

Two bills would offer a path to citizenship for DREAMers, farmworkers, and immigrants with Temporary Protected Status.

People hold signs during a rally in support of the Supreme Court’s ruling in favor of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, in San Diego, California, on June 18, 2020. 
Sandy Huffaker/AFP via Getty Images
Nicole Narea covers politics and society for Vox. She first joined Vox in 2019, and her work has also appeared in Politico, Washington Monthly, and the New Republic.

The House passed two bills on Thursday that would advance part of President Joe Biden’s immigration agenda, offering a path to citizenship to undocumented “DREAMers” who came to the US as children, farmworkers, and immigrants with temporary humanitarian protection.

Nine Republicans joined Democrats to pass the Dream and Promise Act by a vote of 228-197. The Farm Workforce Modernization Act also passed 247-174, backed by 30 Republicans. Both bills had previously passed the House in 2019 with fewer Republican votes, but were never taken up in the then Republican-led Senate.

The bills narrowly address immigrant populations perceived as sympathetic by at least some members of both parties. They represent Democrats’ best chance of passing immigration reform at this point; a comprehensive immigration reform bill backed by Biden is unlikely to attract the Republican votes necessary to proceed in the Senate for now. But even so, it’s not clear that there is an appetite for smaller immigration bills in the Senate, where at least 10 Republicans would need to get onboard.

“I have spoken to quite a few Senators, including Republican Senators, who are interested in making progress… It gives me hope that we might be able to move this forward,” Rep. Zoe Lofgren, a Democratic co-sponsor of the Farm Workforce Modernization Act, told reporters on Thursday. “We wouldn’t put in all this work just to have a House victory.”

The Dream and Promise Act is a more expansive version of the mainstay Democratic immigration bill, the DREAM Act. While that bill covered mostly DREAMers, it did not address immigrants covered by Temporary Protected Status (TPS) or Deferred Enforced Departure (DED) — types of humanitarian protection that allow citizens of countries suffering from natural disaster, armed conflict, or other extraordinary circumstances to live and work in the US free of fear of deportation.

The Farm Workforce Modernization Act, which was the product of months of bipartisan negotiations, could legalize up to about 325,000 immigrants currently working in agriculture who do not have legal status. Republicans are usually reluctant to back any kind of legalization of undocumented immigrants — immigration restrictionist groups have lambasted the bill as a means of securing “cheap foreign labor” at the expense of American workers — but the lawmakers who supported the bill represent districts where agriculture is a major industry.

“We can’t keep waiting. I urge Congress to come together to find long term solutions to our entire immigration system so we can create a safe, orderly, and humane immigration system, tackle the root causes of migration and legalize the undocumented population in the United States,” Biden tweeted Thursday, urging lawmakers to pass both bills.

The Dream and Promise Act

The Dream and Promise Act offers a pathway to citizenship for about 2.5 million DREAMers and other immigrants with temporary humanitarian protection. The original DREAM Act was narrower, covering about 1.5 million people. Many of them have lived in the US for years, if not decades, but former President Donald Trump sought to dismantle the programs that offered them protection from deportation.

The paths vary for different groups. DREAMers — undocumented immigrants brought to the US as children — would face a longer path to eventual citizenship. More than 825,000 DREAMers have already been allowed to live and work in the US under the Obama-era Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, which Trump unsuccessfully sought to undo. But a coalition of red states, led by Texas, is still challenging the legality of the program in federal court; the judge in that case is expected to rule any day now, leaving recipients in a precarious position.

Humanitarian protectees would face a shorter route. Among them are Liberians who sought refuge in the US from civil war in their home country from about 1989 to 2003 under deferred enforced departure. About 400,000 citizens of El Salvador, Honduras, and Haiti have also been able to live and work in the US with TPS, but Trump tried to terminate their status, among nationals of other countries, starting in November 2017 against the advice of senior State Department officials. He argued that conditions in those countries have improved enough that their citizens can now safely return. But many of them have resided in the US for decades and have laid down roots, making it difficult for them to return to countries they no longer call home.

These protectees would be allowed to apply for green cards immediately if they have resided in the US for at least three years and were eligible for TPS on September 17, 2017, or had deferred enforced departure status as of January 20, 2021. After five years of holding a green card, they would be able to apply for citizenship.

DREAMers, on the other hand, would have to apply for “conditional permanent residency,” which would only be granted under certain conditions:

  • They would have had to arrive in the US before turning 18 and been in the US for at least four years.
  • They would need a relatively clean record — a felony conviction or three separate misdemeanors involving total jail time of 90 days would be disqualifying.
  • They would need a high school diploma or GED, or be enrolled in a program to get either one.
  • They would need to pass a background check and other eligibility requirements.

This “conditional status” designation would last for 10 years before they could apply for citizenship, but they would be allowed to work in the meantime. There would be other ways for DREAMers to be able to apply for a green card at any time, including serving in the military for two years, working for three years, or getting a degree from a higher education institution (or be at least two years through a bachelor’s or technical program).

The Farm Workforce Modernization Act

The Farm Workforce Modernization Act is the biggest legalization effort supported by Republicans in recent memory, passing the House 260-165 in 2019. Rep. Bob Goodlatte (R-VA) had introduced another version of temporary agricultural worker visa reform back in 2018 but most Democrats viewed that bill as a nonstarter.

The bill would give farmworkers who have worked in agriculture for at least 180 days over the past two years the ability to apply for “Certified Agricultural Worker” status, which can be renewed in six-month or five-year increments if they continue to work in agriculture for at least 100 days a year. It also offers long-term farmworkers a path to a green card, which requires at least four more years of experience in the industry and a $1,000 fee.

The bill streamlines the application process for the H-2A temporary visa program for seasonal agricultural workers, which admitted over 196,000 people in 2018. It also allows for up to 40,000 green cards to be granted annually, either through the sponsorship of an employer or if workers maintain H-2A status for 10 years.

Additionally, the bill would create a new program capped at 20,000 visas for year-round agricultural industries, which were previously barred from participating in the H-2A program and faced labor shortages, including dairy farming and producers of other animal products.

The bill tightens up enforcement, requiring farm employers to participate in the federal E-Verify program, with no exemptions for small farmers. It would freeze the minimum wage set by the government for one year and cap increases at 3.25 percent for the next nine years.

The United Farmworkers of America, among more than 250 labor groups, have backed the bill.

The US agricultural industry has relied on immigrant labor for decades, dating back to the Bracero Program in the 1940s that allowed millions of Mexicans to come to the US as farmworkers. Another large influx of unauthorized workers came during the 1990s before a slowdown that started around 2008, leaving agricultural employers unable to replace an aging workforce.

Congress has been wrestling with how to respond to labor shortages in agriculture and reduce the industry’s reliance on undocumented workers ever since. That mission took on new urgency under Trump, following his administration’s immigration raids targeting the agricultural sector. At one raid in August 2019, 680 workers were arrested at two poultry plants in Mississippi.

Biden’s attempt at comprehensive immigration reform is on hold for now

The House has opted to immediately vote on these two piecemeal bills instead of the Biden-backed US Citizenship Act of 2021, a comprehensive immigration reform package whose centerpiece is an eight-year path to citizenship for the estimated 10.5 million undocumented immigrants living in the country. The bill also addresses the underlying causes of migration, expands the number of available visas and green cards, invests in technology and infrastructure at ports of entry along the border, removes obstacles to asylum, and shores up protections for immigrant workers.

It’s unlikely that the legislation, which is a kind of mission statement for the Democratic Party on immigration, will attract the 10 Republican votes needed to proceed in the Senate — unless Democrats eliminate or alter the filibuster in a way that would allow them to pass the bill without a Republican vote.

Some Republicans have already warned the bill would “return to the radical left-wing policies that will incentivize illegal immigration and promote an unending flood of foreign nationals into the United States.”

But Democrats have so far been reluctant to say they are willing to bargain with Republicans on beefing up border security beyond modernizing ports of entry or narrowing the bill’s legalization provisions. Nevertheless, they have suggested that, after consulting with key members, the bill could be debated and amended through the committee markup process in April.

“We’re not going to waste time,” Lofgren said in a press call recently. “We will start planning to move the Biden bill and a number of other bills through the Judiciary Committee in April, and then on to the floor. We know we can’t wait.”

But some Democrats say that the calculus around comprehensive reform has changed now that the Biden administration is facing challenges on the border. Immigration authorities are struggling to humanely accommodate high numbers of unaccompanied children arriving on the border, and Republicans have sought to frame it as a “Biden border crisis.”

Sen. Dick Durbin (D-IL), who has long been at the forefront of immigration issues in Congress and introduced the original DREAM Act, recently told reporters that he did not see a way to pass the Biden bill and its promise of a pathway to citizenship for the undocumented.

“I don’t see a means of reaching it,” he said. “I think we are much more likely to deal with discrete elements [of immigration reform].”

But Sen. Bob Menendez (D-NJ), who is a lead co-sponsor on the bill in the Senate, has said he’s not willing to give up yet.

“I’m not going to wave the white flag before we start,” he told reporters earlier this week.