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 HoyerThe Hill's Morning Report - A raucous debate on race ends with Trump admonishment White House, Congress inch toward debt, budget deal House to test Trump's veto pen on Saudi arms sales 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.

ADVERTISEMENT

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 CabralOvernight Defense: House approves 3 billion defense bill | Liberal sweeteners draw progressive votes | Bill includes measure blocking Trump from military action on Iran House approves defense bill after adding liberal sweeteners Lawmakers congratulate US women's soccer team on winning opening World Cup match MORE (D-N.Y.), the CHC whip.

The group’s sense of urgency is driven in part by President TrumpDonald John TrumpPompeo changes staff for Russia meeting after concerns raised about top negotiator's ties: report House unravels with rise of 'Les Enfants Terrible' Ben Carson: Trump is not a racist and his comments were not racist 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.”

ADVERTISEMENT

When Democrats took back the House this year under Speaker Nancy PelosiNancy PelosiHouse unravels with rise of 'Les Enfants Terrible' Will Trump's racist tweets backfire? Al Green: 'We have the opportunity to punish' Trump with impeachment vote 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 BoehnerAmash's critics miss the fact that partisanship is the enemy of compromise A cautionary tale for Justin Amash from someone who knows Border funding bill highlights the problem of 'the Senate keyhole' 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 McConnellThe Hill's Morning Report - A raucous debate on race ends with Trump admonishment White House, Congress inch toward debt, budget deal Republicans scramble to contain Trump fallout 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 CastroThe Hill's Morning Report - Presented by JUUL Labs - Trump attack on progressive Dems draws sharp rebuke Cummings: Treatment of young migrants is 'government-sponsored child abuse' 2020 Democrats vow to get tough on lobbyists 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 CicillineHillicon Valley: Senators unload on Facebook cryptocurrency plan | Trump vows to 'take a look' at Google's ties to China | Google denies working with China's military | Tech execs on defensive at antitrust hearing | Bill would bar business with Huawei Tech giants on defensive at antitrust hearing Critics slam billion Facebook fine as weak 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 - A raucous debate on race ends with Trump admonishment White House abruptly cancels Trump meeting with GOP leaders The Hill's Morning Report — Trump retreats on census citizenship question 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.”