Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

House Passes 2 Bills Aimed At Overhauling The Immigration System

An installation erected near the U.S. Capitol showcases support for the American Dream and Promise Act and the Farm Workforce Modernization Act on March 17, 2021.
Jemal Countess
Getty Images for Communities Uni
An installation erected near the U.S. Capitol showcases support for the American Dream and Promise Act and the Farm Workforce Modernization Act on March 17, 2021.

The House has overwhelmingly passed a pair of immigration bills that offer a targeted approach to amending the immigration system but have an uncertain future when it comes to passage in the Senate.

TheAmerican Dream and Promise Act, which previously passed in the House in 2019, would create a process for undocumented immigrants brought to the U.S. as children — otherwise known as "DREAMers" — to earn permanent resident status and eventual citizenship. It also includes a path to citizenship for people with temporary protected status and beneficiaries of deferred enforced departure. It passed by a vote of 228-197.

"Millions in this country live in fear, holding their breaths every day, that they could be deported to faraway lands that are not their homes," House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer said Thursday. "Because America is their home. For Dreamers, it has been their home since their earliest days. And today, this House is going to take action – as we did last Congress – to help them breathe easier."

The House also approved the Farm Workforce Modernization Act, which would establish a system for agricultural workers to earn temporary status with an eventual option to become a permanent resident. The act would also amend the existing H-2A temporary agricultural worker visa program.

The bills are aimed at tackling pieces of a larger immigration proposal put forth by President Biden at the start of his term. But passing that broad approach through both chambers of Congress is a tall order.

Thursday's votes follow a week in which immigration was front and center on both sides of the aisle. On Monday, House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy led a dozen Republican lawmakers to visit the southern border in El Paso and blamed President Biden for the surge of migrants at the border.

Afterwards, Democratic Rep. Veronica Escobar saidthe GOP delegation used her district as a "prop" and that the numbers of unaccompanied migrant children had increased during the Trump administration and wasn't properly addressed.

In an interview on NPR's Morning Edition Wednesday, she pushed back on the GOP messaging that the surge is driven by Biden taking office.

"The drive to get here, the impulse to get here, the necessity to get here, it doesn't change depending on who's in the White House," she said.

GOP response

Next week, Texas GOP Sens. John Cornyn and Ted Cruz will lead a Senate delegation to tour the Texas-Mexico border and meet with local officials. Both have taken aim at the Biden administration, telling reporters in recent days that immigrants who attempt to enter the United States illegally don't face consequences and that's fueling a surge at the border.

House Republicans are also laying out their rebuttal to Democrats' immigration plans. Rep. María Elvira Salazar, R-Fla., rolled out her own immigration proposal during a press conference at the U.S. Capitol on Wednesday.

Her proposalincludes increased funding for border security and would give immediate legal status for DREAMers with pathways to permanent legalization.

Additionally, the draft plan creates the "Dignity Program," which establishes a path for undocumented immigrants who pass a criminal background check, remain employed and pay income taxes to receive renewable five-year visas to maintain legal status. After completing the Dignity Program, participants have the option to participate in the "Redemption Program" to earn eventual permanent resident status.

"No political party holds a monopoly on compassion in our county," she said. "We Republicans, we're compassionate too. We want to give dignity to those who have lived here among us for years, and to those who want to come into this country — but they have to follow the law."

Addressing the surge at the border

Testifying before a House panel on Wednesday, Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas said the United States is on track to see the highest number of migrants on the country's southern border than at any time in the last 20 years.

He said the U.S. needs to "finally fix the immigration system" and to address the root causes of migration from countries like Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador.

"The president is committed to restarting that critical element of an overarching approach to our border and the issues of migration that have challenged our nation for so many years," he said.

As NPR's Franco Ordoñez reports, the U.S. government had over 4,000 unaccompanied migrant children in custody as of Sunday. By law, children are meant to spend no more than 72 hours in the detention facilities before moving to more hospitable facilities run by the Department of Health and Human Services. On average, they are now spending 117 hours in Border Patrol custody.

To respond to the increasing numbers of migrants at the border, the Biden administration has mobilized the Federal Emergency Management Agency, or FEMA, to assist with processing the uptick in migrants over the next 90 days. The federal government aims to move unaccompanied children from U.S. Customs and Border Protection to HHS more quickly and then place them with a family member or sponsor while their asylum claims are adjudicated.

Senate faces tougher immigration fight

Senate Democratic Whip Dick Durbin, a key figure in the Senate's efforts to move comprehensive immigration legislation forward, has sounded pessimistic about the chances of passing any major overhaul of the system in the near future.

Durbin has said the fact that the House is moving forward with only piecemeal provisions of Biden's proposal is a reminder that neither chamber has the bipartisan support needed to take up the larger effort now.

"Even with a majority, this comprehensive [bill] is still a very difficult thing to achieve," Durbin told Capitol Hill reporters.

The two provisions approved by the House were previously part of legislation that won Republican support, as well as a 2013 bipartisan bill put together by a so-called Gang of Eight, which included Durbin. However, the legislation has failed to get final passage in Congress.

Some, including West Virginia Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin, has pointed to the 2013 bill as a potential path to compromise. However, other previous members of the Gang of Eight, which includes Republican Sens. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and Marco Rubio of Florida, now argue the window has passed for such a proposal.

New Jersey Democratic Sen. Bob Menendez has said he's not ready to "wave the red flag" before the Senate can get going on bipartisan talks in earnest.

Rather, Menendez has said he sees a potential to get the larger legislation or smaller version of it done one way or another, and Democrats are working to negotiate with Republicans.

"It's a constant effort to build a coalition," said Menendez, the lead senator on Biden's larger proposal.

However, Menendez said the party could also consider taking up immigration overhaul efforts by way of reconciliation, the legislative vehicle Democrats used to work around Republican opposition to approve a $1.9 trillion pandemic relief bill that was signed into law last week.

In the end, a pathway for legal residency for 11 million people remains the goal, he said.

"We're in a constant effort to try to achieve that and we'll see. All of the options are on the table," Menendez said. "If we think that getting there through different segments can make it happen, great. We're looking at reconciliation as a vehicle, as a possibility for some, if not all of it. We're looking at appropriation bills, some of the things that we call for in our reform bill are about appropriation-related issues. So we're looking at all the options."

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit

Barbara Sprunt is a producer on NPR's Washington desk, where she reports and produces breaking news and feature political content. She formerly produced the NPR Politics Podcast and got her start in radio at as an intern on NPR's Weekend All Things Considered and Tell Me More with Michel Martin. She is an alumnus of the Paul Miller Reporting Fellowship at the National Press Foundation. She is a graduate of American University in Washington, D.C., and a Pennsylvania native.
Claudia Grisales is a congressional reporter assigned to NPR's Washington Desk.