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Defense bill could be best shot for immigration changes

Provisions would help Afghan refugees, 'documented Dreamers'

Deportation protection for "documented Dreamers" sponsored by Rep. Deborah K. Ross, D-N.C., was included in a sweeping defense policy bill the House passed Thursday.
Deportation protection for "documented Dreamers" sponsored by Rep. Deborah K. Ross, D-N.C., was included in a sweeping defense policy bill the House passed Thursday. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

Corrected 4:56 p.m. | Proposals to help Afghan refugees and “documented Dreamers” were included in a sweeping defense authorization bill that passed the House on Thursday, boosting their likelihood of becoming law before the midterm elections.  

The House approved the fiscal 2023 National Defense Authorization Act by a 329-101 vote, and the Senate plans to take up its own bill. The Pentagon policy bill is one Congress routinely passes and the inclusion of immigration provisions bodes well for their future at a time when immigration bills rarely move as stand-alone measures.

One proposal from Rep. Deborah K. Ross, D-N.C., co-sponsored by Rep. Mariannette Miller-Meeks, R-Iowa, would protect dependent children of green card applicants and employment-based nonimmigrants who face deportation when they age out of dependent status. The amendment is similar to a bipartisan bill Ross has been pushing for months to protect “documented Dreamers.”

“It is unconscionable that we continue to force many of these talented, patriotic young people to self-deport to countries they may barely remember,” Ross said in a statement shortly after the bill’s passage. “I am incredibly proud that this amendment has passed the House, and I will continue working with my colleagues in the Senate to get it across the finish line.”

The bill also included provisions to help vulnerable Afghans still stranded in Afghanistan after the U.S. withdrawal last year. The U.S. evacuation effort helped more than 80,000 people flee the country after the Taliban takeover, but tens of thousands more have sought relief from overseas.

Two amendments, both offered by Rep. Elissa Slotkin, D-Mich., would require the State Department to surge capacity for processing Afghan special immigrant visa applications and refugee referrals and make it easier for Afghan students to obtain visas without proving an intent to return to Afghanistan.

The provisions included in the NDAA are likely to be some of the only immigration policies that will make it into law this Congress. Democrats tried and failed to include immigration provisions in their sweeping budget reconciliation plan last year, and ongoing bipartisan Senate talks have so far yielded little.

The House version of a China competition bill currently in conference includes some immigration policies, but key Republican senators have balked at their inclusion, and the fate of the overall bill remains uncertain.

One proposal not included was offered by Rep. Zoe Lofgren, D-Calif., to exempt immigrants with advanced STEM degrees in national security fields from numerical green card limits. The amendment was nixed in the House Rules Committee because of jurisdictional issues related to fees in the bill that counted as a tax.

However, the House did adopt by a 226-201 vote, an amendment offered by Rep. Jim Langevin, D-R.I., to allow for admission of essential scientists and technical experts to “promote and protect the national security innovation base.”

The amended House bill would also require a Defense Department report to Congress on noncitizen service members and direct the Labor Department to study obstacles to employment facing certain Afghan special immigrant visas, Ukrainian refugees and other groups.

This report was corrected to reflect the Senate will consider a separate version of the NDAA and that the bill sets policy law for the Defense Department.

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