Democrats shunned a White House veto threat and muscled legislation through the United States House of Representatives on Tuesday that would give a chance of citizenship to more than two million migrants, a bill that stands virtually no chance of enactment but lets them showcase their efforts on one of their highest-profile priorities.
The measure is just one skirmish in the Democrats’ multi-front battle against most congressional Republicans over immigration, an issue that has deadlocked the two parties for decades but intensified under the harsh policies and rhetoric of President Donald Trump. It is likely fated to join a host of other House-passed measures advancing the Democrats’ agenda that are running aground in the Republican-controlled senate, including legislation on healthcare, gun control, climate change and election security.
The bill passed on a near party-line 237-187 vote as supporters in the house visitors’ galleries roared “Yes We Can” and other chants, a rare display of raucous emotion in a chamber whose rules require decorum by its guests. Seven Republicans from mostly moderate districts were the only politicians to cross party lines.
As if to underscore the relentlessness and sweep of the immigration fight, the Democratic-led House Appropriations Committee took its own swipe at Trump by unveiling a separate bill that provides no additional money next year for building the president’s long-sought barriers along the southwest border. That measure also claws back a portion of the billions of dollars Trump has unilaterally diverted towards constructing portions of his wall.
Tuesday’s bill would protect from deportation and provide a pathway towards citizenship for young undocumented migrants brought to the US as children. Many would be “Dreamers” currently safeguarded by the Obama-era Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals programme, or DACA, which only the federal courts have thwarted Trump from dismantling.
It would also shield others in the US temporarily because their home countries – chiefly in Central America, Africa and the Middle East – have been ravaged by wars or natural disasters.
The nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office estimated that more than two million people already in the US would get legal status under the House bill. The analysts also said the measure would cost more than $30bn over the next decade, largely because many migrants attaining documentation would qualify for federal benefits like Medicaid.
Democrats said that besides humanitarian considerations, helping the migrants stay in the US would benefit the economy and the many industries that employ them as workers. Among the bill’s supporters are the US Chamber of Commerce, the AFL-CIO labour organisation, immigration and liberal groups.
“This is about who we are as Americans, and what is in the best interests of our country,” said Democrat Lucille Roybal-Allard, the measure’s chief sponsor.
Republicans criticised the bill for lacking border security provisions that they and Trump have long demanded as part of any major immigration bill, and said it dangled overly generous provisions that would encourage even more irregular immigration.
“This bill, to my mind, would ruin America,” said Republican Glenn Grothman. White House aides sent politicians a letter threatening a Trump veto, saying the measure “would incentivise and reward illegal immigration” without “protecting our communities and defending our borders”.
Though the bill contained provisions thwarting many gang members from winning documented status, Republicans unsuccessfully tried adding tougher language. Just 10 Democrats voted for the amendment, nine from districts Trump carried in 2016. Republicans seemed certain to use the vote in next year’s campaigns to try characterising Democrats who opposed the amendment as soft on crime.
The debate occurred as the number of migrants arriving at the border with Mexico has swelled, straining the government’s ability to process and detain them. Since December 1, more than 200,000 migrant families have been released into the country, with a huge backlog meaning they will likely be in the US for years until immigration courts decide their fate.
Trump has requested $4bn to address that influx, but Congress has yet to approve it. Trump has also said he will impose a five percent tariff on all Mexican goods starting next week if that country doesn’t stem the flow of migrants and drugs into the US. The assessment would grow gradually to 25 percent without a resolution. Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, who criticised Trump’s “America First” policy and said it was wrong to stigmatise migrants, said this week that he is confident the US and Mexico can reach an agreement before the June 10 deadline.
Under Tuesday’s House bill, “Dreamers” and undocumented immigrants brought to the US as children could qualify for a decade of conditional documented status if they have been in the country continually for at least four years. They would have to meet education and background check requirements, and not have committed felonies or certain misdemeanors, including for domestic violence.
They would qualify for full, permanent residency if they attained post-secondary degrees, served in the military or had worked for at least three years. After another five years, they could then apply for citizenship.
Also qualifying for residency, and possible citizenship, would be people in the US with Temporary Protected Status (TPS), another programme that temporarily protects roughly 300,000 people from 10 war-torn or disaster-racked nations. The Trump administration has tried ending the programme for people from several of those countries – including Sudan, Nicaragua, Haiti and El Salvador – but has been hindered by lawsuits.
Several thousand Liberians fleeing violence and the Ebola virus who have won temporary legal status in the US would also be given a chance for permanent residency and citizenship. Trump decided last year to end that programme, called Deferred Enforced Departure, but in March extended it for another year so the programme could be phased out.
Democrats’ separate homeland security bill would cancel $601m from procurement programmes, hitting Trump for trying to shift that amount from a treasury fund towards building a border wall, and would cut the number of Immigration and Customs Enforcement detention beds. That move by Democrats seeks to reduce the government’s ability to detain migrants instead of releasing them pending court appearances.
Both proposals seem certain to attract another Trump veto promise.