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Democrats pitch immigration issues on must-pass defense bill

Amendments to defense authorization bill could get votes next week

Rep. Deborah K. Ross, D-N.C., arrives for a committee hearing last month.
Rep. Deborah K. Ross, D-N.C., arrives for a committee hearing last month. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

House Democrats have filed a slew of immigration-related amendments to the fiscal 2023 defense authorization bill, one of their last opportunities to pass new immigration policies before the midterm elections.

Congress is fast approaching its scheduled August recess, followed by peak campaign season, so Democratic lawmakers only have a few more weeks in session to push their legislative priorities before they could lose control of either chamber in November.

The must-pass defense authorization bill, which advanced out of committee in late June, is a prime opportunity to do so. The House plans to take up the bill next week, and amendments made “in order” by the House Rules Committee will be voted on by the full House.

Rep. Deborah K. Ross, D-N.C., introduced an amendment that would protect “documented Dreamers,” or children who grew up in the U.S. as dependents on their parents’ employment visas but risk deportation when they turn 21 and are no longer dependents.

Ross’s proposal has bipartisan support, and reportedly is a topic of ongoing bipartisan Senate talks on immigration, but has yet to advance in either chamber.

“This amendment is a crucial step in our work to protect Documented Dreamers, and I will continue fighting to pass my legislation that would provide a path to citizenship for the more than 200,000 talented young people who call America home,” Ross said in a statement.

Rep. Zoe Lofgren, D-Calif., chairwoman of the House Judiciary Immigration and Citizenship Subcommittee, sponsored an amendment that would exempt certain advanced STEM degree holders in national security-related fields from numerical visa limitations. That would allow high-skilled immigrants to more quickly and easily attain lawful permanent residency in the U.S.

The House included a similar provision in its version of sweeping legislation to help the U.S. compete economically with China, but Senate Republican lawmakers have resisted including immigration provisions that they say could slow down a more narrowly focused bill.

“I think they’re dead,” Sen. Todd Young, R-Ind., one of the conferees negotiating a compromise between the House and Senate versions of the China bill, said last month. “I just think that Democrats haven’t admitted that to themselves yet.”

The China competitiveness bill itself could be in jeopardy. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said he would block it if Democrats pursue a budget reconciliation measure, which Democrats can pass without any Republican votes.

Other amendments to the defense measure, known as the NDAA, include one that would direct the State Department to surge capacity for processing Afghan special immigrant visa applications, and another that would put in place Defense Department reporting requirements on noncitizen servicemembers.

The wide array of amendments reflect the difficulty in today’s narrowly divided Congress of moving stand-alone measures, particularly on thorny topics like immigration.

Democrats sought last year to pass broad legislative provisions in their budget reconciliation bill that would grant citizenship to millions and cut visa backlogs, but those provisions ran into parliamentary problems.

Bipartisan Senate talks have since resumed, but have yet to yield any agreement.

Not every immigration-related proposal to the NDAA was filed by a Democrat. Rep. Tom Tiffany, R-Wis., filed an amendment that would authorize the administration to train and deploy members of the Army, Navy, Air Force and Marine Corps to the U.S.-Mexico border to assist with border security efforts.

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