The centerpiece of Biden’s immigration plan – a bill providing a pathway to citizenship for millions of immigrants – faces an uphill battle in Congress.
“I want to be clear: there is nothing in the way they are behaving right now that suggests this is not a priority,” said Lorella Praeli, president of Community Change Action, a grassroots progressive group. “And in case it was not [a priority], they will lose the majority in 2022. “
Biden’s proposal, introduced hours after he was sworn in, includes a pathway to citizenship for 11 million undocumented immigrants, expanded resettlement of refugees and more technology deployed at the border. Although he is leaving Congress to analyze the mechanics of passing his immigration plan, he is also moving forward with a list of management actions on Friday. Among the pending orders, there is one that restores asylum protections and another that creates a working group to reunite families separated at the border.
Taken together, Biden’s legislative immigration plan and swift unilateral actions present a clear departure from when a Democrat was last in the White House. At a minimum, Biden appears keen to avoid missteps in former President Barack Obama’s first term, when Democrats controlled both houses, but Obama did not pursue comprehensive immigration reform. Rather than wait until after the 2022 midterm or in a second term, Biden immediately sent his plan to the Hill.
“People forget that in 2009 and 2010 the Obama administration was in exactly the same situation and did not introduce an immigration bill,” said Leon Fresco, an attorney specializing in immigration law. immigration who worked in the Obama administration and serves on the advisory board of the Department of Homeland Security. .
“Over the next decade, people criticized the Obama administration for failing to introduce a bill while it controlled the Senate and the House,” Fresco added. “Joe Biden is just not going to repeat that mistake.”
As sources close to the administration have said, Biden wanted to clarify his immigration priorities, although the process of enacting the law will be arduous.
“He’s not starting from the 50-yard line” with a moderate proposal like Obama did, the source close to the White House said.
A White House official disputes Biden returning to Congress and claims the president is working with lawmakers to pass the broader bill. This proposal includes elements that the president says have not been effectively addressed before, as the Trump administration’s policy has centered on building a border wall, the official said. “We expect elected officials from both sides of the aisle to come to the table so that we can finally get there,” the official said.
In addition, other sources close to the White House and a number of immigrant advocates have said Democrats must view any immigration surge as essential to the country’s economic recovery. But as the administration actively monitors and participates in the reform effort, it takes a step back as Congress shapes the actual legislative language..
“We’re not just going to apply our will,” Cedric Richmond, director of the White House’s Office of Public Engagement, said at an event with POLITICO last week. Congress should view Biden’s bill as “a declaration of priority,” he said, but they must “adhere to it.”
Biden’s first priority is an immediate response to the coronavirus and associated stimulus negotiations. Yet they are holding briefings with Democrats on the Hill on immigration reform. White House political advisers have held calls with the offices of the Hispanic caucus and the leaders of the border members.
“We would like to see them move quickly,” White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said of Congressional action on Biden’s immigration proposal last week.
Most lawmakers and staff who spoke to POLITICO say they think Biden is serious.
Senator Bob Menendez (DN.J.) described passing a comprehensive reform bill as a “Herculean task”. But the Biden administration “will put political capital on the table to make it happen,” he said during a call with advocates for immigrants and workers last week.
There is no doubt that the divisions created under former President Donald Trump will make all-party support for any major immigration bill difficult to secure. As one House chief of staff put it, “there really is no room for error”.
Despite the early reaction from some Republicans, Menendez is optimistic more will come to the table. He spoke to Sen. Lindsey Graham, who in 2013 supported comprehensive reform, and Menendez believes the South Carolina Republican will ultimately support the reform measures. Menendez has yet to speak to Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla) about the bill, but he has spoken to other Republicans who voted in favor of the effort in 2013. The additional Republicans still in office who have supported immigration reform under Obama are Senses. John Hoeven (ND), Lisa Murkowski (Alaska) and Susan Collins (Maine).
Menendez and a number of other Democratic lawmakers have said they want to push a broad immigration package at once, in the hopes it will provide more leverage in the negotiations. But the realities of a divided Senate make it more difficult, and other senators like Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin – who will be responsible for leading any immigration reform through the Senate Judiciary Committee – left the door open for one more step by step approach.
While discussions are early and fluid, some House members working on Biden’s immigration proposal said at a recent meeting that they wanted to try a full bill first. But they said they were prepared to break individual pieces if the bigger bill got stuck, according to a source with knowledge of the discussions. A radical package could meet fierce resistance in the 50-50 Senate if Democrats fail to remove legislative obstruction or find ways to include immigration proposals in the budget reconciliation process.
If, in fact, Congress decides to break the bill into components, it may find that advocates are receptive to this approach.
This is because these supporters are watching a countdown: Bills that were passed in the last Congress can be moved directly without going through a committee if they are passed before April 1. If presented before the deadline, some bills, such as those that provide a pathway for so-called dreamers, holders of temporary protection status, and holders of delayed forced departures from ravaged countries by war and disasters could move faster in the House.
“Democrats should definitely do the job of gaining support for the president’s larger-scale reform proposal,” said Tom Jawetz, vice president of immigration policy at the Center for American Progress. “But they cannot miss any opportunity or any unused legislative tool.” This includes using reconciliation to provide ongoing protections for essential workers and their family members on the coronavirus relief and economic recovery plans now underway, he said.
Jawetz and other advocates have urged Democrats in Congress to claim wins where they can get them, saying it could create goodwill and an appetite for even more action.
If Democrats don’t start moving those components this spring, then “there will be a lot of backlash because everyone knows it’s time,” said Marshall Fitz, chief immigration officer for the Emerson Collective, a social justice organization.
So far, supporters are taking Biden at his word, saying they have no reason to believe he sent his immigration bill to Congress on Day 1 simply as a symbolic gesture. Yet they are keeping a close watch and mounting pressure campaigns that include digital ad purchases and grooming the grassroots organization, to ensure Congress acts decisively. A number of immigrant rights groups also participate in regular briefings with House staff.
“[We can] be cynical or skeptical about the likelihood of Republicans coming to the table on some of these issues, ”Fitz said. “But I think Biden really rightfully wants to see how far he can go.”