2 New House Immigration Bills Face Uncertain Fates

Fall Foliage On Display In Washington, DC
Fall foliage is on display in front of the U.S. Capitol on October 30, 2019 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images)
(Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images)

Members of the U.S. House of Representatives introduced two new bills addressing immigration issues Wednesday, but both will face tricky paths through Congress and uncertain fates if they ever reach President Donald Trump’s desk. 

The two pieces of legislation, one augmenting services for current immigrants and refugees and the other an attempt at reforming immigrant agricultural labor programs, introduce fresh concepts and reconfigured compromises that, even if not passed, the authors and supporters hope will inject new life into the debate.   

With the Capitol Building as a backdrop, Rep. Grace Meng (D-N.Y.), Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.), and Rep. Jesús “Chuy” García (D-Ill.), flanked by representatives from immigrant support organizations announced the New Deal for New Americans Act, a bill that would establish a federal office to aid in immigrant integration, ban deportations based on public charge determinations, and increase federally funded immigration services like English classes and workforce training. 

“This is a critical bill at a critical time,” Jayapal said. “This is about who is here and how we make sure they get what they truly need.” 

The legislation, while not addressing policies regarding migrants who enter the country without authorization, does push back against numerous Trump executive orders and administrative changes. 

The administration has reduced annual refugee resettlement targets from more than 100,000 in President Barack Obama’s final year in office to 18,000 for the upcoming fiscal year.

The Trump administration has also raised fees on numerous immigration and visa applications, and sought to limit immigrant use of public benefits by creating a new “public charge” test for anyone applying for an immigration benefit. The New Deal for New Americans Act would set the refugee resettlement goal at a minimum of 110,000 and freeze immigration application fees. 

“Trump is closing the doors on people who have the right to be here,” Garcia said. “We as a country are better than that. The treatment immigrants currently receive is not representative of our values.”

In 1970 immigrants made up less than 5% of the population, but that figure has been steadily rising and immigrants now account for roughly 14% of the population. 

“This bill is extremely important,” said Eva Millona, director of the Massachusetts Immigrant and Refugee Advocacy Coalition. “As the native born population ages, immigrant workers will be crucial to our economy. It is quite simple. America needs immigrant workers.”

Later on Wednesday, a bipartisan House group including Rep.Mario Diaz-Balart (R-Fla.), Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.), Jimmy Panetta (D-Calif.), and Mike Simpson (R-Idaho) introduced the Farm Workforce Modernization Act.

The act would mandate E-verify for all agricultural hires, while also legalizing the status of some farm laborers who entered the U.S. illegally and have been in the country for more than two years. It also updates the H-2A visa program, used to hire foreign nationals for seasonal agriculture work, creating more protections for the workers while making it easier for employers to address workforce shortages. A GOP proposal in 2018 that would have offered temporary visas for the mandatory use of E-Verify did not make it out of the House. 

“Producers are in desperate need of a legal and reliable workforce,” said Rep. Dan Newhouse (R-Wash.), another of the bill’s supporters. 

More than a third of the 1 million agricultural workers in the country are noncitizens, according to the U.S. Census Bureau’s 2019 Current Population Survey. The H-2A program has expanded rapidly in the last decade, with more than 240,000 positions in fiscal year 2018, up from 82,000 in 2008, and critics argue the temporary visa program is ripe for abuse. 

The White House has consistently stated that it wants to see funding for more border security and additional measures before approving of broader immigration reforms, and has not signaled support for either of the two new bills. If either were to make it through the House, it is still unlikely that Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) will take them up. 

In February 2018, several piecemeal immigration bills were debated in the Senate, including one backed by Trump, but none passed. McConnell has since said he is not interested in another “wheel-spinning exercise,” and will not bring up immigration bills that do not have White House backing. 

“There are lots of bills sitting at Sen. McConnell’s feet that are very bipartisan and have high public support,” Meng said. “He needs to do his job.” 

Other senators that have typically been seen as crucial to a bipartisan compromise have also exhibited skepticism that a deal can get done. 

“If we can’t get something done on a bipartisan basis, this is something that maybe the president and others will want to campaign on, challenge our opponents and make it [an issue] that if he gets reelected, he will have a mandate on,” Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) told the Los Angeles Times in April. “Most of the time, the immigration debate is a zero-sum game, and we never quite get there… It always ends up breaking your heart.”

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