WASHINGTON — Democrats seem poised to claim victory in the House's first votes this year on immigration, but moving legislation on the divisive issue all the way through Congress to President Joe Biden is an uphill fight.
The House was set to vote Thursday on one bill giving over 2 million young Dreamer immigrants and others full legal status and a chance for citizenship. A second measure would do the same for around 1 million immigrant farm workers. Both seemed certain to pass.
But party divisions and solid Republican opposition mean pushing legislation through the Senate on immigration remains difficult, especially for Biden's goal of a sweeping measure helping all 11 million immigrants in the U.S. illegally become citizens. The partisan battle shows little promise of easing before next year's elections, when Republicans could use it in their effort to regain House and Senate control.
Work on the legislation comes as the number of migrants attempting to cross the border has been growing since April and has hit its highest level since March 2019. Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas said Tuesday that figure is on track to reach a 20-year high.
Scores of groups supporting the bills include the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. Among those arrayed in opposition is the conservative Heritage Action for America.
GOP lawmakers have been singularly focused on the growing wave of migrants, including children, trying to enter the U.S. from Mexico and blaming Biden administration policies for it. Though neither House bill would affect those trying to cross the boundary, top Republicans were urging rank-and-file lawmakers to oppose both measures.
"By failing to include enforcement provisions to deal with the tide of illegal immigration or provisions to address the humanitarian crisis at the border, the bill would only worsen the flow of illegal immigrants to the U.S.," an email No. 2 House GOP leader Steve Scalise of Louisiana sent his colleagues said of the Dreamers measure.
Democrats were showing no signs of wavering from either bill, similar versions of which the House approved in 2019. Seven Republicans voted for the Dreamers bill and 34 backed the farm workers measure that year, but GOP support was expected to plummet this time as the party rallies behind demands for stiffer border restrictions.
"It looks like they're trying to weaponize the border situation against Democrats in 2022 to say that we're weak on border security," said Democratic Rep. Henry Cuellar, whose south Texas district abuts the border.
Both 2019 measures died in what was a Republican-run Senate and never would have received the signature of Donald Trump, who spent his four years as president constricting legal and illegal immigration.
To counter GOP messaging, Cuellar said, Biden must send "a clear message about the border, 'Hey, you can't come here illegally.'" Republicans say the administration's policies and rhetoric have encouraged the migrants to come.
In an ABC News interview that aired Wednesday, Biden said, "I can say quite clearly: Don't come over." He has ended Trump's separation of young children from their migrant families and allowed apprehended minors to stay in the U.S. as officials decide if they can legally remain, but has turned away most single adults and families.
No. 2 Senate Democrat Dick Durbin of Illinois said this week that he saw no pathway for an immigration overhaul this year, citing GOP demands for tough border enforcement provisions. Democrats would likely need at least 10 GOP votes in the 50-50 chamber to pass immigration legislation.
The Dreamer bill would grant conditional legal status for 10 years to many immigrants up to age 18 who were brought into the U.S. illegally before this year. They'd have to graduate from high school or have equivalent educational credentials, not have serious criminal records and meet other conditions.
To attain legal permanent residence, often called a green card, they'd have to obtain a higher education degree, serve in the military or be employed for at least three years. Like all others with green cards, they could then apply for citizenship after five years.
The measure would also grant green cards to an estimated 400,000 immigrants with temporary protected status, which allows temporary residence to people who have fled violence or natural disasters in a dozen countries.
The other bill would let undocumented immigrant farm workers who've worked over the past two years — along their spouses and children — get certified agriculture worker status. That would let them remain in the U.S. for renewable 5 1/2-year periods.
To earn green cards, they would have to pay a $1,000 fine and work for up to an additional eight years, depending on how long they've already held farm jobs.
The legislation would also cap wage increases, streamline the process for employers to get H-2A visas that let immigrants work legally on farm jobs and phase in a mandatory system for electronically verifying that agriculture workers are in the U.S. legally.
Nearly half the nation's 2.4 million farm workers were in the U.S. illegally, according to Labor Department data from 2016.