WASHINGTON — The House voted Thursday to unlatch a gateway to citizenship for young Dreamers, migrant farm workers and immigrants who've fled war or natural disasters, giving Democrats wins in the year's first votes on an issue that faces an uphill climb in the Senate.
On a near party-line 228-197 vote, lawmakers approved one bill offering legal status to around 2 million Dreamers, brought to the U.S. illegally as children, and hundreds of thousands of migrants admitted for humanitarian reasons from a dozen troubled countries.
They then voted 247-174 for a second measure creating similar protections for 1 million farm workers who have worked in the U.S. illegally. The government estimates they comprise half the nation's agricultural laborers.
In a statement after the votes, President Joe Biden called the action a "critical first step" toward a more sweeping overhaul he's proposed. He said he wants to work with Congress toward "building a 21st century immigration system that is grounded in dignity, safety, and fairness, and finally enacts the long term solutions we need to create an orderly and humane immigration system."
Both bills largely hit a wall of opposition from Republicans insistent that any immigration legislation bolster security at the Mexican border, which waves of migrants have tried breaching in recent weeks. The GOP has accused congressional Democrats of ignoring that problem and Biden of fueling it by erasing former President Donald Trump's restrictive policies, even though that surge began while Trump was still in office.
While Dreamers win wide public support and migrant farm workers are a backbone of the agriculture industry, both House bills face gloomy prospects in the evenly split Senate. That chamber's 50 Democrats will need at least 10 GOP supporters to break Republican filibusters.
The outlook was even grimmer for Biden's more ambitious goal of legislation making citizenship possible for all 11 million immigrants in the U.S. illegally, easing visa restrictions, improving border security technology and spending billions in Central America to ease problems that prompt people to leave.
Nine House Republicans joined all Democrats in voting for the Dreamers measure but 30 GOP lawmakers backed the farm workers bill, giving it a more bipartisan hue.
Congress has long deadlocked over immigration, which again seems headed toward becoming political ammunition. Republicans could use it to rally conservative voters in upcoming elections, while Democrats could add it to a stack of House-passed measures languishing in the Senate to build support for abolishing that chamber's bill-killing filibusters.
Democrats said their measures were aimed not at border security but at immigrants who deserve help.
"They're so much of our country," House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said of Dreamers, who like many immigrants have held frontline jobs during the pandemic. "These immigrant communities strengthen, enrich and ennoble our nation, and they must be allowed to stay."
Neither House measure would directly affect those trying to enter from Mexico. Republicans criticized them anyway for lacking border security provisions and used the debate to lambast Biden, who's ridden a wave of popularity since taking office and winning a massive COVID-19 relief package.
"It is a Biden border crisis, and it is spinning out of control," said House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif.
While the number of migrants caught trying to cross the border from Mexico has been rising since last April, the 100,441 encountered last month was the highest figure since March 2019. Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas has said the number is tracking toward a 20-year high.
In another measure of the problem, around 14,000 children and teens are in Customs and Border Protection custody or Health and Human Services Department shelters while officials find relatives or sponsors to take them, Biden administration officials told reporters.
Democrats were making that problem worse, Republicans said, with bills they said entice more immigrants to sneak into the U.S. and provide amnesty to immigrants who break laws to get here.
"We don't know who these people are, we don't know what their intentions are," Rep. Jody Hice, R-Ga., said of immigrant farm workers who might seek legal status. He added, "It's frightening, it's irresponsible, it's endangering American lives."
During earlier debate on the Dreamers' bill, Democrats said Republicans were going too far.
"Sometimes I stand in this chamber and I feel like I'm in the Twilight Zone, listening to a number of my Republican colleagues espouse white supremacist ideology to denigrate our Dreamers," said Rep. Mondaire Jones, D-N.Y.
Maine Rep. Jared Golden's vote against the farm workers measure made him the only Democrat to oppose either bill.
The House approved Dreamer and farm worker bills in 2019 by similar partisan margins, and both died in what was a Republican-run Senate. Trump, who as president constricted legal and illegal immigration, would have signed neither.
Biden has suspended work on Trump's wall along the Mexican border, ended his separation of young children from migrant families and allowed apprehended minors to stay in the U.S. as officials decide if they can legally remain. He has also turned away most single adults and families.
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 meet education and other requirements.
To attain legal permanent residence, or 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 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 or deferred enforced departure status, which temporarily allow people fleeing extraordinary problems into the U.S.
The other bill would let immigrant farm workers who've worked in the country illegally over the past two years get certified agriculture worker status. That would let them, their spouses and children remain in the U.S. for renewable 5 1/2-year periods.
To earn green cards, they'd have to pay a $1,000 fine and work up to an additional eight years, depending on how long they've already held farm jobs.
The legislation would cap wage increases, streamline the H-2A visa process for legal immigrant farm workers and phase in a mandatory system for electronically verifying the legal status of agriculture laborers.