Dems charge ahead on immigration

Dems charge ahead on immigration
© Greg Nash

Hispanic Democrats are charging ahead with plans to move a comprehensive immigration reform bill this year, bolstered by recently secured support from some of the party’s top brass.

Leaders of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus (CHC) are drafting a measure that some Democratic leaders say they are ready to bring to the floor after the chamber tackles legislation that would both create a path to citizenship for so-called Dreamers under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program and strengthen protections for temporary protected status (TPS) beneficiaries.

“We need to move forward first on the DACA and the TPS — people who have been here making America better, creating jobs,” House Majority Leader Steny HoyerSteny Hamilton HoyerHouse to vote on removing bust of Supreme Court justice who wrote Dred Scott ruling Black Caucus unveils next steps to combat racism Democrats expect Russian bounties to be addressed in defense bill MORE (D-Md.) said this month during the Democrats’ retreat in Northern Virginia. “And then we need to move very quickly onto comprehensive immigration reform.”

Whether the comprehensive package ends up getting a floor vote is uncertain, especially heading into a crucial 2020 election cycle when Democratic leaders may want to avoid an issue that’s likely to divide the diverse caucus. In addition, the legislation would face long odds in the Republican-controlled Senate.

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But the CHC Immigration and Border Issues Task Force, led by Rep. Linda Sánchez (D-Calif.), a former CHC chairwoman, is nevertheless putting together such a bill.

“We’re essentially starting from scratch,” said Sánchez, dismissing the idea that a comprehensive package needs to follow the framework of a failed 2013 bill that passed what at the time was a Democratic-controlled Senate but never got a vote in the GOP-led House.

“Because we have so many people to work with, it’s an ongoing process and we think it’s better to take our time and do this the right way,” said Sánchez, adding that the CHC is seeking input from the Congressional Black Caucus, the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus and the House Judiciary and Homeland Security committees.

Legislation addressing DACA and TPS has already been introduced in the House and is awaiting action in the Judiciary Committee.

Some CHC leaders are warning that there could be dire consequences for the party if House Democrats don’t have a comprehensive immigration bill to show Hispanic voters in November 2020.

“When immigration comes up we expect [Democrats] to be there, because we cannot be second-class citizens,” said Rep. Adriano EspaillatAdriano de Jesus Espaillat CabralHispanic Caucus asks Trump to rescind invitation to Mexican president Hispanic lawmakers back CBC on police reform — an issue for both communities Calls for police reform sparks divisions in Congress MORE (D-N.Y.), the CHC whip.

The group’s sense of urgency is driven in part by President TrumpDonald John TrumpHouse panel approves 0.5B defense policy bill House panel votes against curtailing Insurrection Act powers after heated debate House panel votes to constrain Afghan drawdown, ask for assessment on 'incentives' to attack US troops MORE’s incendiary rhetoric on immigration, but also by what they view as inaction by Democrats including former President Obama.

“Obama had to address it by executive order, because when he had the opportunity early on in his administration, he chose not to do anything,” said Espaillat. “For far too long, the immigration issue has been put in the background.”

Early in his first term, Obama focused heavily on health care reform, allowing Republican House majorities in later years to pass on taking up bipartisan efforts at immigration reform.

“Speaking personally, I do think that we erred in not picking up immigration when we had control of both legislative branches. I think it should’ve been a top priority,” said Sánchez. “It wasn’t, and we’ve been grappling with the fallout ever since.”

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When Democrats took back the House this year under Speaker Nancy PelosiNancy PelosiHouse votes unanimously to extend deadline for coronavirus small-business loan program Overnight Defense: House panel votes to ban Confederate flag on all Pentagon property | DOD report says Russia working to speed US withdrawal from Afghanistan | 'Gang of Eight' to get briefing on bounties Thursday OVERNIGHT ENERGY: House approves .5T green infrastructure plan | Rubio looks to defense bill to block offshore drilling, but some fear it creates a loophole | DC-area lawmakers push for analysis before federal agencies can be relocated MORE (D-Calif.) and Hoyer — the same leaders who supported Obama’s legislative agenda from 2009 to 2011 — leaders made a pledge to tackle immigration reform amid a growing crisis on the border.

Hoyer said much of the current situation at the border can be directly linked to the “failure” of Congress to adopt comprehensive immigration reform in 2013. While the Senate passed a bill with broad bipartisan support that year, then-Speaker John BoehnerJohn Andrew BoehnerLott says lobbying firm cut ties to prevent him from taking clients Lobbying firm cuts ties to Trent Lott amid national anti-racism protests Bush, Romney won't support Trump reelection: NYT MORE (R-Ohio) refused to take it up in the House.

Democrats are encouraged by recent comments from Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellFormer HUD Secretary: Congress 'should invest 0B in direct rental assistance' OVERNIGHT ENERGY: House approves .5T green infrastructure plan | Rubio looks to defense bill to block offshore drilling, but some fear it creates a loophole | DC-area lawmakers push for analysis before federal agencies can be relocated House approves .5T green infrastructure plan MORE (R-Ky.), who expressed an interest in moving on a comprehensive reform bill as an antidote to the border crisis.

Pelosi seized on reports that Senate action is a possibility.

“We all know we need to secure the border,” she said this month at the party’s retreat. “We don’t need a lecture or tantrums from the president on that score. But we do want to work together for comprehensive immigration reform, and I am pleased to see it reported that Leader Mitch McConnell is ready to talk about that because we have a symptom at the border.”

CHC Chairman Joaquin CastroJoaquin CastroSteyer endorses Markey in Massachusetts Senate primary Hispanic Caucus formally endorses George Floyd Justice in Policing Act Technical difficulties mar several remote House hearings MORE (D-Texas) said that at the very least a bill endorsed by his group should be able to make it through the House “as a point for negotiations with the Senate.”

“I would hope that Mitch McConnell is sincere in his offer to take up comprehensive immigration reform,” said Castro.

Democratic leaders appear keen to have a homegrown proposal to run on in 2020, particularly as a way to counter Trump next year, when he is all but certain to make immigration a centerpiece of his reelection campaign.

Rep. David CicillineDavid Nicola CicillineOVERNIGHT ENERGY: DOJ whistleblower says California emissions probe was 'abuse of authority' | EPA won't defend policy blocking grantees from serving on boards | Minnesota sues Exxon, others over climate change DOJ whistleblower: California emissions probe was 'abuse of authority' Hillicon Valley: Apple's developer dispute draws lawmaker scrutiny of App Store | GOP senator blocks bill to expand mail-in and early voting | Twitter flags Trump tweet on protesters for including 'threat of harm' MORE (R.I.), head of the Democrats’ messaging arm, predicted the party would move a comprehensive immigration bill this Congress, and noted there could be political ramifications for inaction.

“I think there is a path forward, and the implications of us not doing it are significant,” he said.

Speaking more broadly, Cicilline said Democrats won’t be bound by what the GOP-controlled Senate will or won’t do.

“We’re not accountable for the failure of the Republicans in the Senate to not do their work,” he said. “What’s going to happen is they’re either going to pass these bills, or some subset of these bills, or the American people will hold them accountable in 2020.”

Sánchez downplayed concerns that a CHC immigration bill could scare away potential voters in purple districts.
   “It’s not an open borders approach,” said Sánchez, adding that the proposal was meant as an overhaul of a broken system, adhering to a set of immigration principles the CHC established earlier this year.

“The president has talked a lot about high-skilled immigration, and we don’t disagree that we should have that, but we still believe in the basic premise of family unity,” she said.

But proponents aren’t betting on an immigration bill sailing through an increasingly progressive House, a GOP-controlled Senate and the Trump White House.

Senior White House adviser Jared KushnerJared Corey KushnerThe Hill's Morning Report - Republicans shift, urge people to wear masks Mueller investigation witness George Nader sentenced to a decade in prison in child sex case Trump World boils over as campaign hits skids MORE said Tuesday that in the coming days he’s ready to present a detailed immigration proposal to address border security, shift toward a merit-based immigration system and “maintain our country’s humanitarian values.”

“This is just a guess, but I’m guessing that if the White House has put together a bill it’s not a comprehensive bill,” said Sánchez. 

Sánchez added she would “be very interested if they come up with things Republicans can get behind, because that would be interesting to work with.”

Still, a consensus bill is unlikely as Democratic leaders aim for legislation that delineates the party’s core position ahead of 2020.

“It is a very controversial issue and the president has made it even more controversial,” Hoyer said. “The populist mood on the right has made immigrants an enemy. They’re not an enemy. The immigration community has made America what it is. So we need to move forward on that.”