On March 18, the United States House of Representatives passed two immigration bills: the American Dream and Promise Act of 2021 and the Farm Workforce Modernization Act. Both have been passed by the House in previous years, but this is the first time they have been voted on since Democrats gained slim majorities in both chambers of Congress and since Democratic president Joe Biden took office. These bills open a gateway to citizenship for millions, from young Dreamers, migrant farm workers, and immigrants who have fled extraordinary conditions like armed conflict or natural disaster. Given their potential impact, it is important to understand the purpose of each piece of legislation, who may benefit, and what we can expect going forward.
The American Dream and Promise Act of 2021
H.R. 6, the American Dream and Promise Act of 2021 won 228-197; nine Republicans voted with Democrats in support. The bill was introduced to the House by Democratic Representative Lucille Roybal-Allard of California in early March. It offers a pathway for citizenship for DREAMers as well as people with Temporary Protected Status (TPS) and Deferred Enforced Departure (DED). DREAMers, undocumented immigrants brought to the country as children, receive temporary protections from deportation and the right to work lawfully under DACA while recipients of TPS or DED status are from countries facing ongoing dangerous circumstances such as armed conflict or natural disaster. According to the Migration Policy Institute, over four-million individuals could benefit from this bill: “in total, a maximum 4,438,000 DREAMers, individuals eligible for Temporary Protected Status (TPS) or Deferred Enforced Departure (DED) and legal DREAMers meet the minimum age-at-entry requirements that could allow them to qualify under the Dream and Promise Act.”
Citizenship for these millions of undocumented immigrants would be granted through a three-step process. First, conditional legal status could be granted to those who have graduated from high school or have equivalent credentials and also do not possess serious criminal records. Following conditional legal status, those eligible can apply for a green card, also known as lawful permanent residence (LPR). This requires applicants to obtain a higher education degree, military service or minimum three years of employment. After five years, green card holders can then apply for citizenship. As Immigration Impact notes, a “hardship waiver” is available to those who do not meet any of these requirements but have a disability or work as a full-time caregiver.
The Farm Workforce Modernization Act
The House also passed H.R. 1603, the Farm Workforce Modernization Act, with a 247-174 vote. Similar to the Dream and Protect Act, this bill paves similar protections and a citizenship pathway for those eligible—in this case, the one million undocumented immigrant farm workers who have worked in the country illegally. Voice of America reports that these farm workers comprise half the nation's agricultural laborers.
This piece of bipartisan legislation would permit farm workers—and their spouses and children—to receive certified agriculture worker status. This would allow them to remain in the U.S. for renewable periods of 5½ years. In order to earn a green card, they would have to pay a fine of $1,000 and, depending on the length of their employment, work for up to an additional eight years.
In addition, H.R. 1603 would also cap wage increases and streamline the H-2A visa process for employers and applicants, and phase in a mandatory system that would electronically verify documentation.
The Prospects of Both Bills: What's Next?
In order to become laws, the bills must now face votes by the Senate. Although DREAMers receive sympathetic public support and the contribution of migrant farm workers is integral to the agricultural industry, the prospects of passage appear doubtful. Immigration is, and has been for years, a contentious issue in Congress. Within the evenly split Senate, the 50 Democrats must also gain a minimum of ten Republican supporters to break Republican filibusters.
Whether or not this is likely remains to be seen; Republican opposition to both pieces of legislation has been undeniable. Voice of America notes that Republicans see Democrats as “making [the immigration] problem worse…with bills they said entice smugglers to sneak more immigrants into the U.S. and provide amnesty to immigrants who break laws to enter and live in the country.”
Even among Democrats, opinions about the bills diverge. CNN Politics contrasts it this way: “some progressive Democrats would have liked to see comprehensive immigration reform legislation rather than these two piecemeal bills, other Democrats have thrown cold water on the idea, underscoring how much of an uphill climb it would be to pass a broader immigration package.”
Despite the uncertainty about the Senate vote, the Dream and Promise Act and Farm Workforce Modernization Act do present a long-awaited opportunity for tangible progress in immigration reform.