Out of Reach to Teens With a Past, ‘Dreamers’ Bill Draws Critics

The House legislation inspired a competing bill from Republicans that is focused first on border security before any outreach to the 2 million undocumented immigrants who entered the United States as children.

Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., joined at right by Rep. Raul Ruiz, D-Calif., chairman of the House Hispanic Caucus, and Rep. Lucille Roybal-Allard, D-Calif., speaks ahead of Thursday’s vote on the American Dream and Promise Act of 2021, a bill to help reform the immigration system. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

WASHINGTON (CN) — After the House took a big step toward removing barriers to citizenship for certain qualifying immigrants, advocates are voicing dismay that the move does not include juveniles who have run afoul of the criminal-justice system.

According to the Human Rights Watch — a global organization monitoring human rights abuses — the bill passed on party lines Thursday would give discretion to the Department of Homeland Security to classify minors with a criminal record as threats to public safety. 

Reacting to the passage, Maielena Hincapié, executive director of the National Immigration Law Center, said that carve-out made it difficult for her to fully endorse what is otherwise long-overdue relief to millions of undocumented children and longtime residents.

“We are thrilled to see the Dream and Promise Act move forward and at the same time, we urge members of the Senate to remove harmful criminalizing provisions in the bill that would compound racial disparities in our legal system,” Hincapié said in a statement.

Apart from those juveniles with records, the American Dream and Promise Act would grant 10 years of conditional status for individuals who are 18 or younger and entered the United States as children. Dreamers, as lawmakers call them, get their name from the never-passed and now-20-year-old piece of legislation called the DREAM Act.

Under the Democrats’ latest reimagining of the bill, Dreamers who grow up to pursue higher education, serve in the military or retain employment for at least three years become eligible for legal permanent residence. After five years, the green card offers a chance for their bearers to apply for full citizenship. The population could include up to 2 million young immigrants.

Should the bill become law, legal permanent residence would also be possible for another 400,000 migrants fleeing extraordinarily difficult circumstances who have temporary protected status in the U.S.

Pennsylvania Republican Brian Fitzpatrick and Michigan Republican Fred Upton joined eight fellow Republicans and every Democrat in the House who sent the bill to the Senate in the 228-197 vote Thursday. The House first passed the provision in 2019.

Naureen Shah, senior advocacy and policy counsel with the American Civil Liberties Union, lauded the measure as a crucial step to fulfilling a promise to millions of American immigrants waiting for a pathway to citizenship. 

The goal was especially important to achieve after former President Donald Trump’s attempts to retire DACA, short for Deferred Action on Childhood Arrivals. The U.S. Supreme Court blocked Trump from rolling doing so by a 5-4 vote.

“Likewise, people with temporary protected status were subjected to constant uncertainty and threats of deportation,” Shah said in a statement. “These policies, like the Trump administration’s entire anti-immigrant agenda, marked a horrific chapter that Congress has the power to end once and for all with bold efforts that put humanity and dignity front and center.”

Whether the Senate will pass the American Dream and Promise Act, however, remains uncertain. With the body evenly divided between Republicans and Democrats, and a 60-vote majority needed to clear a filibuster requirement, Republicans likely will introduce their own immigration reform legislation.

House Republicans offered their Senate counterparts a blueprint to work from on Wednesday, what Florida Congresswoman María Salazar dubbed a “Dignity Proposal.”

The Republican proposal demands that the U.S. first install “an impenetrable border infrastructure system,” which would include “enhanced physical barriers” and secure ports of entry. Dreamers would be provided immediate legal status as authorized by Congress, and immigrants who paid a fine and made a contribution to the American Small Business fund would only be eligible for temporary, not permanent, legal status.

Those, among other provisions — like restricting immigrants’ access to federal benefit programs and forcing those families to pay back taxes — are unlikely to be popular with Democratic senators.

Representatives for Salazar did not respond to a request for comment.

In addition to the American Dream and Promise Act, Democrats also sent the Farm Workforce Modernization Act to the Senate by a 247-197 vote. That bill would allow agricultural workers who have remained in the U.S. undocumented over the past two years to apply for certified agricultural worker status. Once gotten, such status can be renewed by the workers, their spouses and their children every five and a half years. 

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