Democratic leaders seek balance amid liberal push to go big on immigration

Aaron Schwartz

Democratic leaders eyeing piecemeal fixes for the border crisis are also weighing a thornier political question ahead of the 2020 elections: whether to pursue comprehensive immigration reform amid simmering frictions between liberals and centrists.

Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), joined by a growing list of Democratic leaders, has argued repeatedly that an extensive immigration package is the only lasting solution for managing the waves of migrants arriving at the southern border, where reports of dismal health and hygiene conditions have drawn howls from liberals accusing the Trump administration of culturing a humanitarian crisis.

{mosads}But a sweeping immigration reform bill is likely dead on arrival in the GOP-controlled Senate, forcing Democratic leaders to mull the merits of moving such a package through the House before Election Day 2020 — a strategy that would delight the party’s liberal base, but could put vulnerable incumbents in a tough spot on the campaign trail.

It’s a dilemma that hasn’t been overlooked by liberal immigration reform advocates, who are pressing leadership to bring comprehensive legislation to the floor, if only to show voters that Democrats are committed to overhauling a system that all sides of the debate agree is broken.

“The idea [is] that if we do something, why should we take the risk when the Senate’s not going to do anything?” said Rep. Raúl Grijalva (D-Ariz.). “But I think it’s still an important piece to have out there. It’s an important placeholder we need to put down for 2020, so that people running for president and Congress know that this bill’s out there.”

Increasingly, Democratic leaders are jumping on board.

House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) said just before the July 4 recess that Democrats “would like to” vote on comprehensive reform legislation — “if we can get a bill that has … the votes to get done.”

“If the system is broken, we have a responsibility to fix it and make it work,” he said.

But finding the votes on an issue as divisive as immigration policy is no easy lift. And Democratic tensions over the topic were thrust into the spotlight late last month during the debate over a $4.6 billion spending bill designed to alleviate the border crisis.

Liberals had insisted on additional protections for the migrants in detention, but lost the fight to moderates who, fearing the political backlash of congressional inaction, forced leaders to rush a more conservative Senate bill to the floor.

The resulting vote cleaved the party, with 95 Democrats opposing the package — including a number of top leaders, committee chairs and Congressional Hispanic Caucus members — many of them furious that Pelosi had caved to the centrists in moving legislation that lacked explicit standards for the migrants’ care.

And the border is just one sliver of the broader immigration debate.

Comprehensive reform, as the name suggests, would encompass a host of additional elements — from asylum policy and migrant worker programs to interior enforcement and questions of citizenship for undocumented residents — that are sure to create a minefield for party leaders hoping to unite a restive and historically diverse caucus while simultaneously fighting to retain their newly won House majority at the polls next year.

Those lawmakers pressing for a vote on comprehensive reform cite the advantages of carving a contrast between the Democratic-controlled House and the GOP-led Senate, where Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) — the self-described “Grim Reaper” who’s happily scything Democratic bills — has emerged as a popular new target of Democratic campaign attacks. That narrative falls apart, these voices warn, if Democrats fail to use their House majority to move bills like comprehensive immigration reform.

“People are sick and tired of [Congress] just positing ideas; they want to see action, they want to see us solving problems,” said Rep. David Cicilline (R.I.), who heads the Democrats’ messaging arm. “If the Senate doesn’t take them up, they’re responsible for that, and they have to answer for that to the voters.”

Yet the border crisis has shifted much of the immigration debate to addressing more immediate needs, prompting Pelosi on Monday to float a series of piecemeal proposals designed to do just that. And not all Democrats are clamoring to move more comprehensive legislation this Congress.

Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.), who chairs the House Judiciary Committee’s subpanel on immigration, said she’s “not opposed” to holding hearings on comprehensive reform, but cited “more pressing” oversight concerns surrounding Trump’s border policy, as well as a skepticism that the president would ever get behind such a bill.

“I do think it’s important, whether we move a bill or not, to wrap our heads around what we want to do in the next Congress,” she said.

Rep. Pete Aguilar (D-Calif.), a prominent member of the Hispanic Caucus, is also arguing the importance of floating a bill — without demanding a vote on the floor. 

“There’s really no rush,” he said. “I think principles are probably as far as we’ll get before the August break.”

Caught in the middle has been Pelosi, a San Francisco liberal whose sympathies rest with the progressive wing of the caucus but who also bears the cross, as party leader, of protecting the centrists who delivered the Democrats their majority in 2018.

In recent weeks, she has expressed a desire to move comprehensive reform — “It has to be done,” she told reporters just before the July 4 recess — but she has not committed to a vote, suggesting it would be futile without Republican buy-in.

“We have to do that in a bipartisan way and with the administration involved in it,” she said last month.

The debate is still in the early stages, as no comprehensive immigration reform bill has been introduced this Congress. A group of Hispanic Caucus members, led by Rep. Linda Sánchez (D-Calif.), is crafting such a bill. But the details have yet to emerge, and the timing remains unclear.

Sánchez, just before the recent break, declined to comment on any aspect of the process.

A complicating factor has been the Democratic presidential primary, featuring a number of liberal hopefuls floating plans to decriminalize border crossings altogether — an idea Republicans have highlighted to brand all Democrats as “open border” supporters.

Still, Democratic campaign operatives are hardly shying away from the notion of moving comprehensive immigration reform ahead of the elections — depending on the details. Rep. Cheri Bustos (Ill.), head of the Democrats’ campaign arm and who represents a Trump-won district, noted that support for fixing the immigration system transcends party lines.

“I hear from farmers constantly … they’re concerned about the weather and what that’s done to the crops … and then it’s trade, and then they need workers,” she said. “So they’re in favor of comprehensive immigration reform, too.”

Others said Democrats have a civic responsibility to try to fix the system, even if moderates are faced with a difficult vote.

“Now that we’re in the majority, it is time that we put forth our vision of how we can help support and overhaul our immigration system to make it a rational one,” said Rep. Katherine Clark (D-Mass.), vice chair of the House Democratic Caucus.

“Will that be a tough vote for someone? Perhaps,” she added. “But that’s the right way to move forward.”

Tags Cheri Bustos David Cicilline Katherine Clark Mitch McConnell Nancy Pelosi Pete Aguilar Steny Hoyer Zoe Lofgren
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