Democrats vowed the votes would be the first step toward enacting President Biden’s immigration agenda. But Republicans galvanized by border politics promised to stop even the most popular measures.
The Democratic-led House voted on Thursday to create a path to citizenship for an estimated four million undocumented immigrants, reopening a politically charged debate over the nation’s broken immigration system just as President Biden confronts a growing surge of migrants at the border.
In a near party-line vote of 228 to 197, the House first moved to set up a permanent legal pathway for more than 2.5 million undocumented immigrants, including those brought to the United States as children, known as Dreamers, and others granted Temporary Protected Status for humanitarian reasons. Just nine Republicans voted yes.
Hours later, lawmakers approved a second measure with more bipartisan backing that would eventually grant legal status to close to a million farmworkers and their families while updating a key agricultural visa program. This time, 30 Republicans, many representing agriculture-heavy districts, joined nearly every Democrat to vote in favor.
The votes were significant milestones for the Dreamers and other activists who have waged a decade-long campaign, often at great personal risk, to bring the 11 million undocumented immigrants living in the United States out of the shadows. Dreamers, those who have temporary status and agricultural workers in many cases have lived in the United States for long periods, and measures to normalize their status enjoy broad public support.
In moving swiftly to consider both bills, House leaders wagered that singling out relatively narrow but publicly popular immigration fixes could shake up a deadlocked policy debate after years of failed attempts at more comprehensive immigration legislation and deliver for a key constituency.
“This House has another chance to pass H.R. 6 and once and for all end the fear and uncertainty that have plagued the life of America’s Dreamers, who have become an integral part of the fabric of American society,” Representative Lucille Roybal-Allard, Democrat of California and an author of the Dreamer bill, said during a hard-fought debate inside the Capitol. “It is an issue about who we are as Americans.”
But after colliding with a wave of hardened Republican opposition in the House, the bills now face steep odds in the evenly divided Senate. While some Republicans there have pledged support for Dreamers in the past, their party is increasingly uniting behind a hard-line strategy to deny the president the votes he needs to make any new immigration law and use the worsening situation at the border as a political cudgel.
“There is no pathway for anything right now,” Senator Lindsey Graham, Republican of South Carolina and a key player in past bipartisan immigration pushes, said this week.
That means the immigration measures will join a growing pile of liberal agenda items that have passed the House but are destined to languish because of Republican opposition in the Senate. They include a landmark expansion of voting rights, new gun control measures, the most significant pro-labor legislation in decades and the L.G.B.T.Q. Equality Act.
Democrats in favor of eliminating or altering the filibuster believe the accumulating pressure behind those bills could help break the dam for changing Senate rules to do away with the 60-vote requirement for defeating the procedural tactic and allow legislation to pass with a simple majority.
Giving a preview of the difficult road ahead, House Republicans on Thursday denounced the immigration measures as “amnesty” for lawbreakers and accused Democrats of wanting to throw open the borders to foreigners who would take American jobs and carry in the coronavirus.
The legislation passed on Thursday would have no impact on border enforcement. But Republicans argued that any move to grant legal status to immigrants who came to the country unlawfully in the past would only fuel more such migration in the future.
“Why are so many children being placed in the hands of Mexican criminal cartels and forced to suffer the 2,000-mile trail of terror to our border? Because it works,” said Representative Tom McClintock, Republican of California. “This bill proves the Mexican crime cartels are right. You’ll be admitted into our country, and need only wait until the next amnesty.”
Rather than focus on those who would benefit from the bill, Republicans spent much of the debate targeting Mr. Biden for the difficulties at the southwestern border, which some Republicans have taken to calling “Biden’s border crisis.” They have moved swiftly over the last several weeks to bludgeon the president for growing numbers of migrants seeking to enter the country, many of them unaccompanied children, though they never criticized Donald J. Trump for the same phenomenon during his presidency.
Republican strategists hope the issue will rouse the party base and sway enough independent voters alarmed by their dark warnings of violence to help their party win back control of the House and the Senate in 2022.
Mr. Biden’s top immigration advisers have directly acknowledged the scope of the challenge in recent days. They have also pleaded for time to make short- and long-term changes they hope will bring greater order to a region that has plagued the last four presidents.
That includes Mr. Biden’s more ambitious immigration overhaul, the U.S. Citizenship Act, which would provide legal status to almost all undocumented immigrants in the country, provide money to secure ports of entry and speed up the processing of asylum claims, expand legal immigration and pump $4 billion into Central American countries that have sent a flood of asylum seekers northward to the U.S. border in recent years.
Douglas Rivlin, the communications director at the immigrant advocacy organization America’s Voice, said that bill remained the “North Star” for activists. But groups like his helped coalesce around a strategy to try advancing narrower bills for Dreamers and farmworkers first to test the waters.
“If anything is going to get 60 votes and build a coalition around it, it’s these two bills for deeply rooted, long-term immigrants and deeply rooted agriculture in lots of places, red states,” he said. “It allows us to see where Republicans are.”
House Democratic leaders have pledged to hold a vote on Mr. Biden’s Citizenship Act this year, as well. For now, though, their own members are divided over it, with moderates and progressives at odds over border security provisions.
And in the Senate, Bob Menendez, Democrat of New Jersey and a lead sponsor of the plan, said this week that he would be trying to determine “if we can amalgamate enough people to have a more significant, broader effort.”
Progressives and pro-immigration activists are not holding their breath. They are already pushing Democratic leaders to find a way to force through broad immigration changes without the minority party, including by blowing up the filibuster.
Another option they are discussing is to package a sweeping legalization measure with a large jobs and infrastructure package that enjoys bipartisan support, by including legislation granting a path to citizenship for millions of undocumented essential workers.
The stalemate on immigration policy is nothing new for Congress. Attempts at comprehensive reform have failed under the last three presidents, even in moments of greater political alignment on the issue between Democrats and Republicans.
It was Congress’s inaction that prompted President Barack Obama in 2012 to set up the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, or DACA, to provide temporary, renewable work permits and protection from deportation to Dreamers. Roughly 700,000 people signed up for the program before Mr. Trump tried unsuccessfully to end it.
The American Dream and Promise Act would provide a path to citizenship for all DACA recipients and other Dreamers who have not enrolled, promising permanent legal status in exchange for higher education, work or military service. The bill would also include hundreds of thousands of people with Temporary Protected Status, granted to immigrants from countries devastated by natural disaster or violence, and those who hold a similar status known as Deferred Enforced Departure, often extended in cases where immigrants would face persecution or danger if they were returned to their home country.
The Farm Workforce Modernization Act deals with groups seldom seen or noticed by much of the public: the scores of migrant agricultural workers who grow and harvest much of the country’s food supply.
Unlike the Dreamers bill, it is the product of lengthy bipartisan negotiations and haggling with farmworkers and their employers. The resulting compromise would create a program for farmworkers, their spouses and their children to gain legal status if they continue to work in agriculture and pay a $1,000 fine; alter the temporary agricultural worker visa program to stabilize wage fluctuation and include the dairy industry; and institute a mandatory, national E-Verify program for employers to confirm individuals are qualified to work.
Proponents of the bill say the changes will help bring hundreds of thousands of farmworkers out of the shadows, preserve the flow of migrant workers who are willing to do hard labor that Americans increasingly will not and promote stability in the nation’s food supply that has become more urgent during the pandemic.
“The U.S. is a country of law and order. We must continue working to reform our broken immigration laws and enhance our border security,” said Representative Dan Newhouse, Republican of Washington and one of the bill’s lead authors. “That is exactly what this legislation will do.”