House to take up Dream Act this week


Demonstrators hold illuminated signs during a rally supporting the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program (DACA), or the Dream Act, outside the U.S. Capitol building in Washington, D.C., Jan. 18, 2018.

Zach Gibson | Bloomberg | Getty Images

Democrats in the House of Representatives are expected to move forward this week with their first effort at immigration reform during the current Congress, taking a stab at addressing a problem that has vexed lawmakers for years.

The House will consider two bills that each address a portion of the sweeping immigration reform proposed in the White House-backed legislation introduced in February. That package seems doomed in the Senate, where it would require 10 votes from Republicans. GOP lawmakers have panned the bill as “blanket amnesty.”

The push comes as President Joe Biden’s administration is wrestling with a surge of unaccompanied minors on the southern border with Mexico. The influx has led to record numbers of children being held in the government’s detention facilities in a situation reminiscent of the 2019 crisis faced by former President Donald Trump.

While Trump declared an emergency at the time, the Biden administration has declined to do so, and has shied away from saying there is a “crisis.” The administration ordered the Federal Emergency Management Agency to help shelter and transfer the children over the weekend.

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Democrats, who have a narrow majority in the House and hold a tenuous grasp on the evenly divide Senate, are hoping that a piecemeal approach to immigration is able to attract more bipartisan support. It’s not yet clear though that Republicans will get behind the effort.

One bill, the American Dream and Promise Act, would create a path to citizenship for millions of immigrants known as “Dreamers.” Another, the Farm Workforce Modernization Act, would establish a path to legal status for immigrant agricultural workers.

The development on the border, which Republicans have seized on as an illustration of the Biden administration’s ineptitude when it comes to immigration, has appeared to dim prospects for a bipartisan agreement on the issue in the near-term. On Monday, Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., a key supporter of the Senate’s version of the Dream Act, said that a cross-party deal was unlikely to happen “until you stop the flow.”

What would the bills do?

The House’s Dream Act would create a path to citizenship for about 2.5 million people, according to its authors. More than 4.4 million would be eligible for legal permanent residence in the U.S., according to an analysis from the Migration Policy Institute, a Washington think tank.

The Dream Act would apply to immigrants protected under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program implemented by former President Barack Obama who meet certain work or education requirements. The bill would also provide a path to citizenship for those in the country with Temporary Protected Status, a type of humanitarian designation for immigrants from countries in crisis.

The public broadly supports providing a path to citizenship for immigrants brought to the country unlawfully as children. A June survey by the Pew Research Center found that nearly three-quarters of Americans supported such a measure.

The Dream Act does not go as far as Biden’s comprehensive plan, which would create a path to citizenship for most of the 11 million undocumented immigrants in the United States. Some activist groups, including Human Rights Watch, have criticized it for including provisions limiting benefits for those convicted of certain offenses as children. (A Senate version of the bill, authored by Graham and Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., lacks those provisions.)

The Farm Workforce Modernization Act provides for some agricultural workers in the country illegally to receive a temporary legal status if they’ve worked at least 180 days in the last two years.

Workers are also eligible under the bill to receive green cards if they pay a fine and work between four and eight additional years in agriculture, depending on how long they had already been employed in the industry. The bill would also modernize the H-2A temporary agricultural worker program.

Legal challenges could influence debate

It is possible that an ongoing challenge to the legality of the DACA program could dramatically shift the contours and urgency of the immigration debate. A federal judge in Houston is currently weighing a suit brought by Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton, a Republican who has pledged to tangle with the Biden administration in court.

In June, the Supreme Court rejected a Trump administration effort to rescind the DACA program, which shielded about 700,000 people from deportation at the time. The court ruled that the administration didn’t follow the appropriate protocol in terminating DACA, though it didn’t weigh in on the legality of the program in the first place.

Paxton’s suit, arguing that Obama exceeded his executive authority, is before District Judge Andrew Hanen, a conservative George W. Bush appointee whom advocates have warned is likely to declare the program unlawful. Any decision would likely be appealed, though a 6-3 majority of Republican appointees on the Supreme Court provides little grounds for optimism among DACA’s supporters.

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

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