Congressional leaders who had hoped to reach a deal on immigration reform before the end of the year faced difficulties in pushing the proposals to a vote.
Democrats saw the lame-duck session between the election and the start of the new Congress as the last chance to pass meaningful legislation before losing their majority in the House. Among the immigration-related legislation considered were bills that would have offered pathways to citizenship for so-called Dreamers, farm workers and Afghans evacuated to the US since last year; and another that would have eliminated limits on the number of green cards granted each year to people from any country.
As of Wednesday night, none of the bills had progressed.
“I don’t give up on you, don’t give up on me. We will fight for you to win,” Sen. Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.) told dozens of Dreamers at a rally last week, his voice cracking with emotion.
The moment illustrated the apparent frustration lawmakers felt as another opportunity to make changes to the immigration system came and went.
Perhaps the broadest and most prominent proposal came from the independent senator. Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona and Republican Senator. Thom Tillis of North Carolina, whose legislation would have strengthened funding for border security and expanded the use of detention facilities in exchange for a path to citizenship for roughly 2 million brought immigrants in the United States as children.
Tillis and Sinema had reportedly been in talks for months about the deal, which would have also expanded the controversial pandemic policy known as Title 42 that authorizes the rapid deportation of migrants at the border without the possibility of seeking asylum.
While some immigrant advocates had been cautiously optimistic about the draft legislation, House Democrats, including Rep. Lou Correa (D-Santa Ana) said they I couldn’t stand it and House Republicans, including Rep. Chip Roy of Texas said border security should not be combined with any path to citizenship. The text of the bill was never produced and time for a vote ran out.
Cris Ramón, an independent global migration analyst, said the Border Patrol union’s support for Tillis and Sinema’s framework was promising for reaching a compromise.
“One of the biggest things that gets in the way is that there’s a feeling that whatever they bring in they have to fix the border on the first try,” Ramón said. “The frontier is incredibly dynamic – it’s always shifting and changing.”
After a federal judge ordered Title 42 lifted Thursday, the Department of Homeland Security prepared to increase migrant crossings at the US-Mexico border. But on Monday The Supreme Court temporarily blocks that this happens, maintaining the current policy for the time being.
At Reform Lutheran Church in Washington last Thursday, Durbin told Dreamers gathered for a rally that he had tried to find the votes for legislation to protect their status but had fallen short with Republicans .
Durbin wrote the first version of the DREAM Act in 2001 in an effort to establish a path to permanent residency for immigrants who came to the United States as children. More than a decade later, then-President Obama established the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, widely known as DACA, to temporarily shield qualified immigrants from deportation.
Juliana Macedo do Nascimento, deputy director of federal advocacy for United We Dream and a DACA recipient herself, said she was disappointed by the lack of progress during the lame-duck session. A federal court case challenging DACA is expected to reach the Supreme Court, where advocates predict a conservative majority will declare the program illegal. Macedo do Nascimento said she worries that Congress is waiting until the last minute to act to protect people like her.
“I feel like sometimes they forget that they’re dealing with real people’s lives,” he said. “It feels really dehumanizing.”
Another bill that never got a full vote would have eliminated annual limits on the number of employment-based green cards granted per country of origin, while doubling the per-country limit on family green cards. The current limits have disproportionately affected people from India and China, who make up a significant portion of immigrants on high-skilled work visas and often wait decades to become permanent residents; as well as people from Mexico and the Philippines, who face delays in family sponsorship.
Critics warned that eliminating the country limits without increasing the number of green cards available each year would result in the majority going to applicants from a few countries at the expense of those from the rest. In a letter to his colleagues in the Congressional Black Caucus earlier this month, Rep. Yvette D. Clarke (DN.Y.) wrote, “I cannot support efforts that will perpetuate the current inequities in our immigration system.”
During the debate in the room in December. 13, Rep. Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-San Jose) said the Congressional Research Service had concluded the bill would have no adverse effect on applicants from Africa or the Caribbean, and called on Congress to move the immigration system of its racist origins. The bill was pulled from the voting schedule the next day.
A bill that passed was the Veterans Service Recognition Act, which would have protected from deportation immigrants who served in the US military and facilitated the return of those who were deported. But after passing the House earlier this month, the bill was not taken up by the Senate.
Efforts to include important immigration provisions in the federal defense bill also failed, including a proposal to protect so-called documented Dreamers when they turn 21 from aging out of eligibility for legal status with the visa of their parents.
Another proposal that has not advanced is the Afghan Adjustment Act, which would provide additional security screening and a path to citizenship for more than 70,000 Afghans resettled in the United States on temporary status that expires after two years. This bill received broad bipartisan support, as well as the support of more than 40 well-known retired military officers, who he wrote in a letter to Congress Saturday that not enacting it would make the US less safe.
“Potential allies will remember what is happening now with our Afghan allies,” they wrote.
Advocates held out hope that protections for Afghans would land as part of a $1.7 trillion funding measure in the works to avert a government shutdown. Lawmakers tried to cram as many items into their legislative wish lists as possible without stopping the omnibus package from moving forward. A partial government shutdown will begin Saturday if the bill fails.
The draft package released Tuesday provides more than $86 billion to the Department of Homeland Security, with increased funding for border technology, maritime security and migrant detention, according to a summary released by House Committee Chairwoman ‘House Appropriations, Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.).
The draft includes money to hire 300 more Border Patrol agents, provides $133 million to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services for refugee processing, rejects the Biden administration’s attempt to reduce the ability of immigration detention by more than 25% – instead of maintaining 34,000 beds – and allocates $800 million to help nonprofits and local governments with the arrival of migrants in places like El Paso.
The omnibus also expands the Special Immigrant Visa Program, which provides green cards to Afghans who worked with the U.S. government, and increases the cap by 4,000 visas to 38,500. But it doesn’t include protections for those already here, many of whom don’t qualify for the program and must apply for asylum or risk deportation.
Advocates also hoped to slip a last-minute Senate bill into the omnibus package to provide a path to citizenship for those who have been farmworkers for more than a decade. The Affordable and Safe Food Act, introduced last week, would amend and expand the H-2A visa program that U.S. employers can use to hire seasonal migrant workers, allowing them to hire some workers year-round . It would also require agricultural employers to use E-Verify, the electronic system that screens employees for legal work authorization.
But the bill lacked public Republican support and was opposed by the American Farm Bureau. In a speech Monday night in the Senate, Sen. Michael Bennet (D-Colo.) urged his colleagues to take action.
“Are we really going to accept, as a defining issue of this country, that we want fields full of indentured servants?” he said
On Wednesday, supporters of the Afghan Adjustment Act pushed through a floor amendment to include its protections in the omnibus package, though the measure was a long shot. The day ended with the senate deadlocked by a senator’s amendment. Mike Lee (R-Utah) that would extend Title 42 to the border, threatening the bill’s passage.
Kristie De Peña, director of immigration at the Niskanen Center, a Washington think tank, said that while hope for change this session may have passed, the need for an immigration overhaul is becoming increasingly urgent.
“We haven’t reached the breaking point, but there will be a cliff,” he said. “If we can get that close [to achieving change]”Clearly the policy solutions are out there.”