By Laura Barrón-López, Heather Caygle and Anita Kumar, Politico
Congressional Democrats unveiled President Joe Biden’s expansive immigration reform bill Thursday, which would provide an eight-year pathway to citizenship for 11 million undocumented immigrants. But it already faces dim prospects for becoming law with such narrow Democratic majorities in both chambers.
The bill, introduced by Sen. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.) and Rep. Linda Sanchez (D-Calif.), would create an expedited pathway for so-called Dreamers and other select undocumented immigrants. It also would increase the number of available diversity visas, and direct more funding to immigration courts and technology.
“We have an economic and moral imperative to pass big, bold and inclusive immigration reform that leaves no one behind, not our Dreamers and [Temporary Protective Status] holders, not our farm workers and meat packers, not our essential workers and not our parents, friends and neighbors,” Menendez said on a call with reporters Thursday.
Menendez alluded to past attempts and failures to pass big reforms.
“We have compromised too much and capitulated too quickly to fringe voices who have refused to accept the humanity and contributions of immigrants to our country,” he said.
In drafting a sweeping immigration bill early in his presidency, Biden is seeking to avoid what many Democrats viewed as a missed opportunity by former President Barack Obama to address the issue. The bill, which would also change the term “alien” to “noncitizen” in the country’s legal code, has been praised widely by progressives and immigrant rights advocates. But it’s unlikely to gain any Republican support.
Though co-sponsors characterized the bill as a historic step by the administration to address an overtaxed immigration system, few on and off the Hill think it can pass a 50-50 Senate.
“This bill was not designed to get to 60,” said a person close to the White House who was briefed on the bill. “There’s no pathway to 60.”
White House officials wouldn’t say if Biden is considering passing elements of immigration reform through a second budget reconciliation process later this year or if they are already talking to lawmakers about passing smaller items. But they conceded the end result could be very different.
“He was in the Senate for 36 years and he’s the first to tell you the legislative process can look different on the other end of where it starts,” a White House official said on a call with reporters Wednesday evening.
Sources close to the White House have said for weeks that the administration is open to passing targeted bills that could be more likely to garner 60 votes.
Biden himself said as much during a town hall with CNN on Tuesday as he fielded questions on immigration. “There’s things I would deal with by itself,” he said. “But not at the expense of saying I’m never going to do the other.”
Democrats have been debating for more than a month what to do when Biden’s sweeping immigration overhaul lands on Capitol Hill. Those talks have only intensified in recent weeks as more Democrats coalesced around the idea of passing more targeted legislation versus putting legislative muscle behind a comprehensive bill that has little chance of becoming law.
House Democratic leaders have yet to make a final decision but several lawmakers and senior aides told POLITICO they believe the chamber will first try to pass a bill that offers a pathway to citizenship for Dreamers and immigrants from war-torn countries. A handful of Republicans crossed party lines and supported the bill last Congress.
“I salute the president for putting forth the legislation that he did,” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi told reporters on Thursday. “There are others who want to do piecemeal and that may be a good approach today. That’s up for the Congress to decide.”
The effort will likely happen the week of March 8 — the last time lawmakers will be in Washington to vote before a month of remote committee work and a two-week recess for Easter and Passover. House Democrats are also staring down an April 1 deadline to act — to bypass committee action, the party has to bring immigration-related bills that were passed last year to the floor by then.
Meanwhile, Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), the top Democrat on the Senate Judiciary Committee, introduced a narrow bill providing a pathway to Dreamers with Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) earlier this month.
The immigration debate is illustrative of the delicate dance Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) must navigate over the next two years: balancing demands for sweeping legislation from a liberal base with narrow majorities and calls for a more moderate approach from emboldened centrists who see themselves as a check on the left.
Even immigration advocates who support the contours of the bill say it is not as comprehensive as the 2013 immigration legislation. Specifically, it does not include broad provisions on border security or employment verification to appeal to Republicans, though it includes language on both. It includes some enforcement measures, including border technology to stop drug traffickers and increased penalties for employers who hired undocumented immigrants, but E-Verify, a system to check legal status, remains voluntary.
Few Republicans have expressed interest in working with Democrats on immigration. And a number of those who previously contributed to 2013 reform efforts have attacked Biden’s proposal as an “amnesty” bill. Some Democrats, representing districts along the U.S.-Mexico border, are worried that the administration’s quick movement on immigration and messaging could hurt their party politically.
But the bill’s co-sponsors and the administration say they are willing to listen to Democratic colleagues who may have quibbles with the bill.
Menendez defended the border security provisions. He said the U.S. is already spending more money on border patrol “than a combination of all other federal law enforcement agencies put together.”
White House press secretary Jen Psaki would not say if Biden is willing to add more funding for border security to the bill to woo Republicans. The president’s proposal represents a “reset” of the immigration reform conversation, she said, adding that the White House is “eager” for Republicans to join. The bill’s co-sponsors also say they’re willing to listen to Republican concerns.
“One of the key components of the bill is investing in smart security at our ports of entry and doing it in a way that’s actually effective,” Psaki said. “The entire strategy of the last four years was to do funding for a wall that was not effective in securing our border.”
Some Hispanic Caucus members, advocates and economists have also increasingly urged the administration and congressional leaders to include a pathway to citizenship for undocumented essential workers in a second reconciliation package to bolster an economic recovery.
To pass immigration measures through the reconciliation process, they must meet the Senate’s budgetary rules, Pelosi said. If the measures passed the test, she said it “would be wonderful because then we wouldn’t need the 60 votes.”
Congressional Progressive Caucus Chair Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.) also endorsed the piecemeal approach Thursday. It doesn’t rule out simultaneously pursuing a comprehensive bill “on parallel paths,” she said.
“There is an urgency to doing a comprehensive bill that we all understand,” Jayapal told reporters.
“But we also understand the urgency of immigrants … who have been in such a state of limbo for such a long time. And there is bipartisan support for that group,” Jayapal said, citing Dreamers and immigrants from war ravaged areas.
Jayapal and other progressives are urging Pelosi to put targeted bills related to those specific groups of immigrants on the floor before the April 1 deadline.
But not all Democrats agree with that approach. Menendez, the administration’s chief co-sponsor in the Senate, said he strongly prefers an all-at-once strategy.
“There are some in Congress from both parties who argue against going big on immigration reform,” Menendez said on a call with press Thursday. “[Some] say we should leave the bigger, tougher questions for another day pursuing narrow reforms that nibble at the edges and leave millions of people behind. Personally, I couldn’t disagree more with both approaches.”
Still, Menendez acknowledged, Democrats likely won’t reject other strategies. If parts of Biden’s bill can be attached to the reconciliation process, or garner enough votes for passage individually, Menendez said he’d support it.
“We are not foreclosing any pathway into which we can achieve robust immigration reform,” he said.
Sanchez, who is leading a group of seven House members in corralling support for the bill, echoed that sentiment. “Oftentimes the end result is not exactly the starting result,” she said.
The White House insisted its larger bill should come first in an effort to avoid the perception it is abandoning a comprehensive approach, according to two people briefed on the legislation. The White House has also been holding a series of conference calls with immigration advocates in the days before the bill was released, including ones with progressive groups Wednesday.
The Refugee and Immigrant Center for Education and Legal Services, which provides services to immigrants and refugees, called the bill “a good symbolic gesture,” urging Congress instead to pass multiple smaller bills and use the reconciliation process.
“What we still need is leadership that will ensure there is a path to victory before the end of this year,” said Erika Andiola, chief advocacy officer at RAICES. “Now is the time for Democrats to use every tool at their disposal to provide protection to the immigrant community without relying on the party of Trump and without compromising on further inhumane enforcement.”