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 HoyerDemocrats debate scope of impeachment charges Hoyer on impeachment: 'This is not driven by polls' Live coverage: Witnesses say Trump committed impeachable offenses 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 CabralDemocrats vow court victories won't slow impeachment timeline Overnight Defense: Protests at Trump's NYC Veterans Day speech | House Dems release Pentagon official's deposition transcript | Lawmakers ask Trump to rescind Erdogan invite Bipartisan House members call on Trump to rescind Erdoğan invitation MORE (D-N.Y.), the CHC whip.

The group’s sense of urgency is driven in part by President TrumpDonald John TrumpStates slashed 4,400 environmental agency jobs in past decade: study Biden hammers Trump over video of world leaders mocking him Iran building hidden arsenal of short-range ballistic missiles in Iraq: report 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 PelosiTrump's legal team huddles with Senate Republicans On The Money: Falling impeachment support raises pressure for Dems on trade | Trump escalates fight over tech tax | Biden eyes minimum tax for corporations | Fed's top regulator under pressure over Dodd-Frank rules Overnight Health Care — Presented by Johnson & Johnson — Virginia moves to suspend Medicaid work rules | Powerful House panel sets 'Medicare for All' hearing | Hospitals sue over Trump price rule | FDA official grilled on vaping policy 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 BoehnerFormer Speaker Boehner's official portrait unveiled Key Republicans say Biden can break Washington gridlock From learning on his feet to policy director 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 McConnellTrump's legal team huddles with Senate Republicans Schumer briefs Democrats on impeachment trial 'mechanics' Trump legal team gears up for Senate impeachment trial in meeting with GOP senators 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 CastroPelosi faces tough choices on impeachment managers Hillicon Valley: Google to limit political ad targeting | Senators scrutinize self-driving car safety | Trump to 'look at' Apple tariff exemption | Progressive lawmakers call for surveillance reforms | House panel advances telecom bills Minority lawmakers call out Google for hiring former Trump DHS official 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 CicillinePelosi to Democrats: 'Are you ready?' Pelosi faces tough choices on impeachment managers Democrats set to open new chapter in impeachment 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 KushnerDemocrat calls for investigation of possible 'inappropriate influence' by Trump in border wall contract Judge temporarily halts construction of a private border wall in Texas Mueller witness linked to Trump charged in scheme to illegally funnel money to Clinton campaign 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.”