With chants of “Yes we can” thundering from the rafters, House Democrats on Tuesday powered through legislation to cancel deportations and grant future citizenship rights to millions of illegal immigrants in a vote that nodded more toward 2020 politics than to substantive policymaking.
The 237-187 vote marked the first major legalization bill to pass the House in nearly a decade, and it underscored the ground Democrats feel they have gained on an issue that both sides expect to be at the center of the presidential election.
With President Trump calling for action to solve the crisis at the border, Democrats countered by casting their eyes at the 11 million illegal immigrants who already have crossed and found places in the nation’s shadows.
Democrats singled out more than 2 million of them for legalization. They include “Dreamers” and foreigners in the U.S. under temporary humanitarian protections.
“We have the opportunity to be a part of history, to be on the right side of history,” said House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, California Democrat, as Dreamers and other immigrant rights activists watched from packed viewing galleries. They cheered and chanted as the bill crossed the finish line.
But history is not likely to be made this year.
Republicans who control the Senate won’t bring Mrs. Pelosi’s bill to the floor. They say it ignores the urgent problems at the border and doesn’t include any tools to prevent waves of illegal immigration.
The White House also vowed a veto even if the bill reaches the president’s desk.
“No compromise is possible without both sides coming to the table,” the White House said in a policy statement this week.
Democrats didn’t seem interested in a compromise, given the path the bill took to reach the final vote.
Party leaders carved out just two hours of floor debate, blocked Republicans from offering any amendments and made no overtures to find common ground, effectively daring Republicans to either vote for the bill as is or else be labeled “anti-immigrant.”
Republicans countered with accusations of “amnesty,” saying the bill erased years of illegal status from millions of migrants without requiring any significant punishment.
Critics also said millions of people waiting in Central America and elsewhere were watching and would see the vote as a promise of amnesties.
“Either we have a way to get in legally to our country or we don’t,” said Rep. Doug Collins, Georgia Republican.
Republicans insisted that they want to protect Dreamers but said any bill must also include border security measures.
Democratic leaders rebuffed those calls for compromise. They said Republicans had their chance last year when they controlled the House, Senate and White House, and squandered the opportunity to put on the floor a partisan proposal that contained a much smaller legalization for Dreamers.
Besides, Democrats said, they did compromise — among themselves.
Liberals fought with party moderates over how generous to make the forgiveness provisions of the bill and whether to exclude illegal immigrants with gang ties or drunken-driving convictions.
In the end, Democrats wrote the bill so that appearing on gang membership databases could be used as evidence but wouldn’t be an automatic block to citizenship. Having a DUI wouldn’t be enough to disqualify someone either, though multiple DUIs would be a problem.
Republicans attempted during debate to change the bill to explicitly exclude gang members, but Democrats soundly rejected that effort.
“If you’ve been designated a danger to Americans, then you don’t deserve to become an American,” said Rep. Ben Cline, Virginia Republican.
The debate underscored how much the immigration issue has changed over the years and how little has changed in the politics.
In 2010, during a lame-duck session, Mrs. Pelosi led the House to pass legislation known as the “Dream Act,” which would have legalized illegal immigrant Dreamers who came to the U.S. as juveniles. Nearly 2 million people would have qualified for temporary legal status, but less than 40% of them would have gone on to gain green cards, the Migration Policy Institute estimated at the time.
This year’s bill includes the Dream Act and grants legal status to two other populations of migrants: those here under Deferred Enforced Departure or Temporary Protected Status program. Both are humanitarian protections designed to be used to prevent people from being sent back to home countries torn by war, natural disasters or other dangers.
Those protections were supposed to be temporary, giving the home countries a chance to recover. But hundreds of thousands of migrants have been protected for more than two decades under the programs.
All told, this year’s bill could grant legal protections to 2.7 million people, the Migration Policy Institute estimated — and the bill would create new paths to citizenship for future TPS holders.
Even as the demographics changed, so did the votes in Congress.
In 2010, eight Republicans backed the Dream Act, while 38 Democrats voted against it. On Tuesday, the more generous legalization bill won the support of every Democrat in the chamber and just seven Republicans.