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‘Dreamer,’ farmworker bills to test Senate waters on immigration

The House takes up the bills next week, Democrats hope they will build momentum for a larger immigration measure

Food industry workers rally last month on the National Mall, calling on Congress to deliver citizenship relief for 11 million undocumented immigrants.
Food industry workers rally last month on the National Mall, calling on Congress to deliver citizenship relief for 11 million undocumented immigrants. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

Congress has tried for decades to enact comprehensive immigration legislation without success, so starting next week the House will try a different strategy: passing a pair of more modest bills.

Democratic leaders hope that may help build momentum toward a larger overhaul effort pushed by the White House.  

The two bills are easily expected to pass the House and would help provide legal status for two groups of undocumented immigrants: those brought to the U.S. by their parents and migrant farmworkers.

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One bill would provide a path to citizenship to certain immigrants brought to the U.S. as children — currently protected by the Obama-era Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, or DACA — and to immigrants with other temporary protections. House Democrats will also put forth legislation that creates a path to legal status for migrant farmworkers while ramping up requirements for E-Verify, an electronic system to verify employees’ work authorization, and restructuring the H-2A agricultural visa program.

Both bills passed the House in 2019 with bipartisan support, but languished in the Republican-controlled Senate. 

By bringing those bills to the floor for another vote before the spring recess that starts at the end of the month, and sending them to a Senate floor now controlled by Democrats, lawmakers hope to show progress on legislative action on immigration. Meanwhile, they continue to drum up support for the comprehensive immigration bill pushed by President Joe Biden. 

[Hill Democrats unveil immigration bill backed by White House]

“We’re sort of flooding the zone and working on as robust a relief as we can get,” Rep. Linda T. Sanchez, D-Calif., who is spearheading that bill in the House, told CQ Roll Call. 

House Judiciary Chairman Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y., whose committee has jurisdiction over immigration, indicated lawmakers will tackle the sprawling legislation when they return from break. 

“We need to engage in some consultations with key members and stakeholders, but I see no reason why we wouldn’t mark it up when we reconvene in April,” he told CQ Roll Call.

Democrats acknowledge that the comprehensive bill is the party’s “vision” on immigration, and not a bipartisan product. 

However, Democrats will need some Republicans on board to advance any bill in the Senate to overcome a filibuster. Political infighting and horse-trading could still threaten to derail even more narrow legalization measures, as it has in years past.

“Although we have more Democratic control now than we have had in recent years, I still think that this is a community or group that gets really used as a political pawn, and I don’t really see that changing significantly now,” said Jaclyn Kelley-Widmer, an immigration law professor at Cornell Law School who specializes in DACA. 

‘More divisive’ politics

It’s been more than a decade since the Senate last had a clean Dreamer bill brought to the floor, and of the three Republicans who voted to advance the final version, just one remains in office: Lisa Murkowski of Alaska.

Of the 14 Senate Republicans who voted for the last attempt at comprehensive immigraton reform in 2013, five are still in office: Murkowski, Susan Collins of Maine, John Hoeven of North Dakota, and remaining “Gang of Eight” members Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and Florida’s Marco Rubio. 

Shifting political dynamics following four years of bombastic anti-immigrant rhetoric under former President Donald Trump could deter some Republicans from voting for what could be perceived as an “amnesty” bill.

Greg Chen, government relations director for the American Immigration Lawyers Association, noted a lack of moderates among the Republican party with the loss of senators such as Arizona’s Jeff Flake, who left in 2019, and John McCain, who passed away in 2018.

“That knowledge base, and that experience, is greatly needed to be able to show leadership and bring along other members,” Chen said. 

Some Republicans have already indicated support for the measures. 

Graham introduced bipartisan legislation with Judiciary Chairman Richard J. Durbin, D-Ill., that mirrors the House bill to protect immigrants who came to the U.S. as children, often referred to as Dreamers.

Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, has also publicly expressed support for Dreamers, despite voting against legislation to protect them in the past.

He said he supported a path to legalization for Dreamers while campaigning in Texas last year. On the Senate floor last summer, he said he was “willing to work with anyone, Republican or Democrat, who’s interested in solving the problem.”

His spokesperson referred to those remarks when asked if Cornyn would support either chamber’s version of DACA legislation. 

Graham has said he doesn’t expect his own bill to pass as a standalone measure. 

When he reintroduced the bill last month, Graham called the bill a “starting point for us to find bipartisan breakthroughs providing relief to the Dreamers and also repairing a broken immigration system.”

Kevin Bishop, Graham’s communication director, told CQ Roll Call the senator’s views haven’t changed — but he also highlighted a prior attempt to address Dreamer protections failed after Democrats declined to provide $25 billion in border wall funding in exchange. 

“Dems rejected that. Real question is, what are they prepared to do?” Bishop said by email. 

Other Republicans agreed that Democrats would need to be open to negotiation.

Sen. John Hoeven, R-N.D., who voted in favor of the 2013 immigration bill, would be unlikely to support an immigration bill that fails to increase border security. 

“Senator Hoeven’s top priority on immigration has always been to first secure the border,” his spokesperson said. “He believes that any reform proposal must include strong border security, which includes barriers, personnel, and technology, and also that we need to move to a merit-based immigration system.”

Still, some policy analysts say that, despite years of fruitless attempts to pass a legalization measure, this year could be different because of “an overwhelming majority” of public support for immigration change, Chen said.

Congressional lawmakers will “feel the weight of that pressure,” he added. 

The farmworker bill — which gained nearly three dozen Republican votes when it passed the House in 2019 — could gain traction with Senate Republicans from rural areas. 

Meanwhile, congressional Democrats are facing increasing pressure from immigrant advocates to pass a legalization measure. 

“With a Democrat-led Senate and a Democrat-led White House, our theme is ‘no excuse.’ Democrats now have to deliver,” said Sanaa Abrar, advocacy director at United We Dream.

Ongoing litigation over the legality of the DACA program, which provides temporary protections to the Dreamer population, has also increased the urgency of the moment. A federal judge in Texas is considering whether to strike down the DACA program in a state-led legal challenge, and is expected to issue a ruling any day. 

Thomas A. Saenz, president and general counsel of the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, which is defending DACA in that case, said a court ruling against DACA would “create urgency,” but expressed skepticism it would increase congressional support for the program.

“If you can’t get enough bipartisan support on the merits of this issue … I don’t think a court ruling is going to get you there,” he said.

Lindsey McPherson contributed to this report. 

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