House passes immigration bill to help ‘Dreamers’

The measure passed with nine Republican votes; it now faces an uphill battle in the Senate

United We Dream, CASA and other organizations celebrate passage of the legislation to help "Dreamers" in the House during their rally on the National Mall on Thursday. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
United We Dream, CASA and other organizations celebrate passage of the legislation to help "Dreamers" in the House during their rally on the National Mall on Thursday. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
Posted March 18, 2021 at 7:09pm

Legislation that would create a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants brought to the United States as children and those with other temporary immigration protections passed the House with bipartisan support Thursday, potentially teeing up a battle in the more closely divided Senate.

The bill passed 228-197, with nine Republicans joining Democrats in voting for the legislation.

The measure would open a gateway to citizenship for 2.5 million undocumented immigrants, including those often referred to as Dreamers, according to the bill’s sponsors.

The measure covers people already in the U.S. who were 18 years old or younger when they entered the country, including those currently with temporary protections under the Obama-era Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, or DACA.

It would also provide a path to legal status for individuals with Temporary Protected Status as of 2017 or Deferred Enforced Departure as of January, two forms of temporary protection for individuals from countries in crisis.

The bill “eliminates the ambiguity in their lives and recognizes the talents and indispensable contributions Dreamers make to our country,” Rep. Lucille Roybal-Allard, a primary sponsor, said on the House floor.

The nine Republicans who voted in favor of the measure were Rep. Don Bacon of Nebraska, Rep. David Valadao of California, Rep. Fred Upton of Michigan, Rep. Dan Newhouse of Washington, Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick of Pennsylvania, Rep. Christopher H. Smith of New Jersey and Florida Reps. Carlos Gimenez, Mario Diaz-Balart and Maria Elvira Salazar.

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Upton told CQ Roll Call the measure is “not a perfect bill,” but that the Senate can make changes. He also expressed sympathy for the Dreamer population.

“Some are married or educated, they speak the language, they're working, they pay the taxes,” he said. “When you get to know these people, and I do, it breaks your heart.”

Salazar, who visited the border this week with other House Republicans, called the bill “posturing” by Democrats, but said she supported the measure to show her willingness to negotiate on immigration. 

“I want to send the right message to the Democrats that I'm willing to work with them. Let’s see if now they're going to work with us,” she told reporters. 

The Biden administration voiced its support for the measure in a statement before Thursday’s vote.

“Americans recognize that our Nation is enriched by the contributions of immigrants. [The bill] is a critical milestone toward much-needed relief for the millions of undocumented individuals who call the United States home,” the statement said.

The measure reflects an effort by Democrats to pass a more sweeping immigration bill, one pushed by President Joe Biden but resisted by Republicans focused on the number of migrants at the southern border.

In the days leading up to its passage, House GOP leaders encouraged members to vote against the measure. Many congressional Republicans took to the floor to argue about the bill’s impact on the increasing numbers of migrants at the U.S.-Mexico border. They said passing legislation that opens a path to citizenship for undocumented workers would encourage more migration.

“At a time we’ve got chaos at the border, this bill gives amnesty to 3 million illegals,” said Rep. Jim Jordan of Ohio, the top Republican on the House Judiciary Committee.

“This bill proves the Mexican crime cartels are right: You’ll be admitted into our country and need only wait until the next amnesty,” Rep. Tom McClintock, R-Calif., added on the House floor.

The bill covers only individuals who were already in the United States at the beginning of the year and would not apply to migrants who entered the country after Jan. 1.

Speaking on the Senate floor Thursday, Judiciary Chairman Richard J. Durbin, D-Ill., called on his chamber to make protections for Dreamers the “law of the land.”

“When we receive the Dream and Promise Act from the House of Representatives, we will have an opportunity to see if 10 Republican Senators can join us in an effort to finally pass it. I hope more,” he said.

The House on Thursday also passed a second immigration bill, introduced by Reps. Zoe Lofgren, D-Calif., and Dan Newhouse, R-Wash., that would allow undocumented farmworkers and their families to earn legal status.

That measure would also reduce cumbersome paperwork for agricultural employers who use the H-2A farmworker visa program to legally hire foreign workers on a temporary or seasonal basis and would cap increases in the minimum wages that employers pay H-2A workers.

Farmworkers already in the country could qualify for renewable five-year agriculture visas if they have worked at least 100 days in agriculture. Agriculture workers who do not meet the time requirements for visas could apply for H-2A visas.

It would also provide a path to permanent residency for some longtime farmworkers and ramp up requirements for E-Verify, an electronic system to check employees’ work authorization.

In June 2019, the House passed a similar Dreamer bill 237-187, with unanimous support from Democrats joined by seven Republicans, while the farmworker measure passed the chamber 260-165 in December 2019 with the support of 34 Republicans and most Democrats. Both measures died in the Republican-controlled Senate.

Immigrant advocates responded quickly to Thursday’s passage of the Dreamer legislation.

Maria Praeli, government relations manager at the advocacy group FWD.us and a DACA recipient, said the bill’s passage “gives me renewed hope that we are closer to achieving permanent protections for millions of people like me.”

“I celebrate today and look forward to when I can wake up in the country I’ve called home since I was five years old without the fear of deportation,” she said in a statement.

Congressional Democrats hope that passing both measures now will help build momentum to advance the White House-backed comprehensive immigration bill, which would overhaul the U.S. immigration system and provide a path to legal status for all 11 million undocumented immigrants in the United States.

Speaking to reporters earlier this week, Durbin was pessimistic that the comprehensive bill had legs in either chamber.

“I think Speaker Pelosi has discovered that she doesn’t have the support for the comprehensive bill in the House, and I think that indicates where it is in the Senate as well,” he said.

Sen. Bob Menendez, D-N.J., who is spearheading the comprehensive effort in the Senate, struck a more hopeful tone.

“I respect Sen. Durbin, but you know, I’m not going to wave the white flag before we start,” he told reporters Tuesday.

According to a Thursday report by the Congressional Budget Office, the Dreamer bill would increase the federal deficit by $35.3 billion over the next decade, mainly from an increase in health insurance tax credits.

While the Senate is now in Democrats’ control, even the two more narrow bills still face an uphill climb to Biden’s desk.

At a news conference before the vote, House Judiciary Chairman Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y., said he hopes “our Senate colleagues will hear us on the other side of the Capitol and will take similar action.”

Menendez told CQ Roll Call on Thursday that the goal “is not about whether we pass these bills or something else,” but rather to see “how far we can go” on immigration. He noted that the provisions in the Dreamer and farmworker bills are “significant elements” of the comprehensive bill.

“I think, in part, they're drivers of the conversation,” he said.

Americans in both political parties are generally supportive of measures to provide a path to citizenship for the Dreamer population. A June poll by the Pew Research Center found that 74 percent of Americans reported being in favor of Congress passing a law to grant legal status to undocumented immigrants brought to the U.S. as children.

Additionally, the poll found that about 91 percent of individuals who identify as Democrat or leaning Democrat said they favor such a law, while 54 percent of those who said they were Republican or leaned Republican favored it.

The bill has also drawn the support of the business community. Neil Bradley, executive vice president and chief policy officer of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, told reporters Thursday that his organization and others will now focus their efforts on advocating for the bill in the Senate.

“I think the biggest hurdle is just getting to the vote,” he said. “If we can get to the vote, I think there are 60 votes there to protect Dreamers, to protect TPS recipients and to modernize our ag worker program.”

However, some Republican senators have already indicated that additional border security enhancements would be needed for them to support a Dreamer bill.

Ellyn Ferguson and Jessica Wehrman contributed to this report.