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Regional Interests

Senate Democrats Rally for ‘Dreamers’ Bill, Facing Stiff GOP Opposition

A bill that would offer a pathway to citizenship to millions of so-called Dreamers and other immigrants with temporary protections was widely opposed by Republican senators during a hearing at the U.S. Capitol Tuesday, many of whom staunchly advocated instead for stronger border security.

The hearing, held on the ninth anniversary of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, which has protected nearly 830,000 immigrants brought to the U.S. as children from being deported, highlighted the steep hurdles this legislation — and other efforts to offer legal status to undocumented immigrants — faces in a sharply divided Senate.

Under the American Dream and Promise Act, which the U.S. House passed in March, 2.7 million Dreamers and nearly 400,000 people eligible for Temporary Protected Status (TPS) and other humanitarian protections could apply for permanent residency, according to a study by the Migration Policy Institute (MPI). About 24% of them live in California.

“No state has more at stake in passing a solution for these individuals than California,” said Sen. Alex Padilla, D-California, chair of the Senate Immigration Subcommittee, who co-led Tuesday’s Judiciary Committee hearing.

Padilla and other Democrats at the hearing strived to highlight the economic and social contributions of the immigrants who would benefit from the proposed legislation.

An estimated 40,000 health care workers with DACA or TPS status risked their lives during the COVID-19 pandemic but don’t have the certainty of permanent residency in the U.S. and could still be deported, Padilla said.

“These immigrants have put their own health and their family’s health on the line to keep America running,” he added.

Two immigrants who have cared for COVID-19 patients testified at the hearing: Rony Ponthieux, a TPS holder who works as a nurse in Miami and is the father of a U.S.-born son in the Army; and Manuel Bernal Mejia, a DACA recipient who is an emergency room physician in Chicago.

“I’m honored to serve my community during this pandemic and to help save lives when our country has collectively experienced great loss, even as I face my own uncertain future,” said Bernal Mejia, who grew up in Tennessee. “And while it is true that most Dreamers are not doctors, we all contribute to this country in our own special way. America is our home.”

The Judiciary Committee has not yet scheduled a vote on the American Dream and Promise Act yet, an aide to Padilla said.

Congress created TPS in 1990 to provide relief to immigrants in the U.S. who could not return safely to their home countries because of natural disasters, armed conflict or other conditions.

DACA recipients must apply to renew their permits to live and work in the U.S. every two years, while TPS permits typically last six to 18 months, before the Department of Homeland Security decides whether to extend them. Immigrants from El Salvador and Nicaragua have been eligible for TPS more than 15 years.

The Trump administration took multiple steps to terminate DACA, as well as TPS for most holders, but was halted by the courts. A case challenging DACA’s legality is still pending in a Texas district court, injecting more uncertainty into the future of current recipients.

Over the last 20 years, several versions of the Dream Act failed to get the 60 votes needed to pass in the Senate. Meanwhile, public support for immigrants brought to the U.S. illegally as children has grown, with about three-quarters of Americans in favor of granting permanent legal status to Dreamers, according to the Pew Research Center.

At Tuesday’s three-hour hearing, some Republican senators expressed sympathy, especially for DACA holders, but seemed unwilling to move forward on a deal without beefing up border security measures and narrowing the scope of who would be eligible for legalization.

“If we want to provide legal status for Dreamers, we must secure our border so that we don’t find ourselves in the same situation again 20 or 30 years from now,” said Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, the ranking member of the Judiciary Committee.

Several GOP lawmakers also criticized the bill as a broad “amnesty,” that they believed would incentivize illegal immigration at a time when unlawful border crossing efforts have spiked.

In May, U.S. Customs and Border Protection encountered more than 180,000 immigrants along the southern border, 56% more than in January when President Biden took office. Republican senators linked that increase to the Biden administration’s decisions to halt Trump-era restrictive policies such as the Migrant Protection Protocols and construction of the border wall.

But immigration experts say extreme violence and poverty in Central America are the main factors pushing migrants to flee north, not U.S. immigration policies. During the Trump administration, they note, CBP arrests at the southern border nearly tripled, from 304,000 in 2017 to 851,000 in 2019, according to agency data.

Senate Judiciary Committee Chair Dick Durbin, D-Illinois, added that immigration authorities under Biden have expelled 74% of undocumented migrants arrested at the southern border.

“So the Biden administration is up against large numbers, but they are clearly not welcoming and opening the door to everyone,” he said.

Durbin, who introduced the first Dream Act in the Senate two decades ago, said he would continue bipartisan discussions on legislation to offer Dreamers and TPS holders U.S. citizenship, as well as come up with a border security bill.

“I think we can find justice for people who are eligible under TPS and the Dream Act without suggesting that the door is open and anyone can come to this country without any kind of scrutiny whatsoever,” he said. “And I can assure you that the battle will continue.”

Another bill that aims to offer legal status to undocumented farmworkers, the Farm Workforce Modernization Act, was also passed by the House in March but is still awaiting a hearing in the Senate.

Copyright 2021 KQED