House Democrats upped their ante on illegal immigration Tuesday, unveiling a bill that could lift as many as 2.7 million migrants — mostly “Dreamers” — out of legal limbo and grant them a full pathway to citizenship.
The legislation would immediately carve those people out of danger of deportation and then create a longer path to apply for legal status and eventually to earn citizenship rights.
They would also gain rights to take their cases to federal courts, and some Dreamers who have been deported could apply to return to the U.S. and get on the same pathway to citizenship.
The bill goes well beyond previous versions of the Dream Act, including 2.3 million Dreamers and more than 400,000 other migrants who have been in the U.S. for years under special humanitarian protections but who fear their time is about to run out under President Trump.
“We are not going to let Donald Trump send them back, putting their lives in peril or tearing their families apart,” said Rep. Nydia M. Velazquez, a New York Democrat who rallied with fellow Democrats on Capitol Hill on Tuesday.
Democratic leaders vowed to hold votes, saying they are making good on promises they made to Hispanic voters and immigrant rights activists in recent years to pursue a generous legalization for people in the country without permission.
“There should be nothing partisan or political in this legislation,” said House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, California Democrat.
Yet a key Republican said Mrs. Pelosi has already made the bill more about politics than about getting a law enacted.
Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart, a Florida Republican who has been supportive of Dreamers in the past, called Democrats’ latest offer a “PR stunt.” He said Mrs. Pelosi and her team bungled by failing to reach out for bipartisan input and instead tossed in a liberal wish list that makes it a nonstarter in the Republican-led Senate.
“I continue to implore Democratic leaders to work with me and other Republicans on something with a real chance of consideration, passage and enactment,” he said.
Dreamers are usually the most sympathetic figures in the immigration debate. They are generally young adult illegal immigrants brought to the U.S. as children, with little say in the decision, and sometimes came so young that they have no memories of their home countries. Some don’t even learn of their unauthorized status until late in their teens.
To qualify for the legalization, Dreamers would need to have come to the U.S. before their 18th birthday, have been in the country for at least four years and kept a relatively clean criminal record. They would also have to show that they had at least worked toward a high school diploma or GED.
To gain full legal permanent residency — the key step on the pathway to citizenship — they would have to complete a couple of years of college, join the military or show they had held a job for a few years.
The Democrats’ bill not only covers them, but it also includes hundreds of thousands more migrants protected from deportation by either the Temporary Protected Status or Deferred Enforced Departure program.
Both are types of humanitarian protections designed to give people a temporary safe place in the U.S. — along with work permits and some other taxpayer benefits — while their home countries recover from natural disasters, instability or wars.
TPS and DED recipients would be eligible for legal permanent residency as long as they have been in the U.S. before Sept. 25, 2016.
The Migration Policy Institute, a think tank, calculated that 2.7 million migrants could be eligible for status under the bill. Of those, about 2.3 million would come from the population of Dreamers and 429,000 from the humanitarian programs.
Immigrant rights groups cheered on Democrats’ effort, calling the bill a good first step for the House majority — though some said it was still too tough, creating too many chances for some illegal immigrants who failed to win status to be reported to deportation authorities.
Dream Act legislation has been on the cusp of passage before, clearing the House in 2010 but defeated in the Senate by a Republican filibuster.
Mr. Trump floated several deals last year that would have granted some more permanent legal status to Dreamers, but Democrats and some Republicans said the president was asking for too much in return with his demand for border wall money, limits to family-based immigrant visas and an end to the visa lottery.
Those negotiations took place under a Republican-led Congress.
“We are in charge now,” Rep. Mark Takano, California Democrat, said Tuesday, underscoring why Democrats are optimistic that they can win legalization without having to embrace any of Mr. Trump’s get-tough policies.
But Rosemary Jenks, government relations manager at NumbersUSA, which advocates for a crackdown on illegal immigration, said the Democrats’ bill is out of step, particularly given the surge of migrants at the U.S.-Mexico border.
“It is unbelievably irresponsible for the Democrats to introduce a massive amnesty bill at the same time they are refusing to even acknowledge the crisis on the southern border,” she said. “Sadly, House Democrats will vote for this open-borders agenda. Hopefully, no Republicans are foolish enough to join them.”