Democrats move smaller immigration bills while eyeing broad overhaul

House Democrats are pressing ahead with slivers of their immigration agenda while they scramble to build support for a much broader comprehensive package.

An immigration overhaul stands among the top priorities of President Biden, and Democrats in both chambers introduced the U.S. Citizen Act last month reflecting the administration’s goals.

But disagreements between liberal and moderate Democrats have complicated the strategy for bringing that legislation to the floor, highlighting both the explosive nature of immigration politics in Washington and the struggles facing congressional Democrats as they charge ahead with an ambitious legislative slate with a razor-thin majority.

“They had a big rollout. I think there are a couple of speed bumps they are now running into,” said one senior House Democratic aide. “It’s always about striking the balance. Biden wants to go moderate and not seem too soft on a pathway to citizenship.”

“I hope they are not leaving comprehensive immigration reform in the dust.”

Sponsored by Rep. Linda Sanchez (D-Calif.) and Sen. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.), Biden’s immigration plan constitutes a sweeping overhaul of an immigration system that all sides of the debate agree is broken.

Central to the proposal is a provision that would create a pathway to citizenship for roughly 11 million people living in the country illegally. It also aims to modernize border technologies, eliminate visa backlogs and per-country visa caps, boost immigrant worker protections and increase financial assistance to El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras in hopes of discouraging migration from those troubled Central American nations — a topic of heightened urgency given the current migrant surge at the southern border.

Yet some liberals are voicing early concerns that certain eligibility safeguards have been written so broadly that they would deny legalization benefits to some immigrants who should be eligible to get them.

“[It] does give some heartburn to some advocates because it excludes too many people,” said Douglas Rivlin, communications director for America’s Voice, a liberal advocacy group.

Moderates, meanwhile, are watching warily to ensure the package doesn’t unintentionally benefit certain groups — violent criminals, for instance — thereby providing Republicans with easy attack lines heading into the 2022 midterm elections, when both chambers are up for grabs.

Amid the search for a balance that can win support from both camps, Sanchez has tapped a team of “closers” — seven congresswomen leading the blitz to secure votes — and Biden’s immigration advisers are also busy conducting outreach and rallying support.

Rep. Jerry Nadler (D-N.Y.), chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, is characterizing Biden’s immigration package as “important and serious.” He’s intending to mark up the legislation next month.

“We need to engage in some consultations with key members and stakeholders, but I see no reason why we wouldn’t mark it up when we reconvene in April,” Nadler said Monday in an email to The Hill.

That effort is sure to feature scores of proposed amendments from lawmakers of all stripes, including liberal and moderate Democrats vying to put their mark on the bill.

“My sense is that the details of the larger immigration bill are far from determined, especially within the ideological bounds of the Democratic Caucus,” said one House Democrat. “What Pramila and Alex might want are very different from what Abigail and Elissa could live with.”

The reference was to Reps. Abigail Spanberger (D-Va.) and Elissa Slotkin (D-Mich.), two prominent centrists from battleground districts, and Reps. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.) and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.), who are the face of House liberals.

As the jockeying ramps up over a comprehensive immigration bill, House Democrats have scheduled votes this week on two smaller reform proposals: one offering citizenship opportunities to farmworkers; the other to extend those benefits to people with temporary protected status and the so-called Dreamers, who were brought to the country illegally as children.

The strategy of voting on piecemeal bills carries several advantages, Democrats argue. For one thing, it allows them to take advantage of a special fast-track rule. Under the “McGovern Rule” — named for House Rules Committee Chairman Jim McGovern (D-Mass.) — Democrats have until the end of March to bypass committee hearings and markups and bring the pair of immigration bills directly to the House floor, given that the bills already passed in the last Congress.

It’s “smart and practical and important,” Rep. Josh Gottheimer (D-N.J.), co-chair of the bipartisan House Problem Solvers Caucus, said of the small-ball approach.

Second, it allows Democrats to demonstrate they are making progress on their immigration agenda — “and then use that momentum to pass the bigger bill,” said a second Democratic aide familiar with the debate.

Some immigration reformers also view this week’s votes as a litmus test for what is possible in a hyper-partisan Congress where the Democrats enjoy only the slightest majority in each chamber.

“This is really the first test to see where the Republican Party is on immigration after Trump,” said Rivlin. “Are they all worried that if they do something pro-immigration they’re going to get a primary funded by Stephen Miller and Donald Trump? Or are the ones who talked about supporting Dreamers … on the campaign trail going to vote for this stuff?”

Yet there’s also a simpler explanation for moving the smaller bills first: They have the votes to pass, while Biden’s, at the moment, does not.

“The vote count on the big bill isn’t there yet and these two bills have good support,” said a second House Democratic lawmaker.

Rep. Veronica Escobar (D-Texas), who represents a border district that includes El Paso, said she hopes the comprehensive bill can pass on the House floor by April or May. But she warned that a GOP filibuster in the Senate — an “instrument of gridlock” she called it — will pose a “huge problem” for the Biden package.

“I’m very cautiously optimistic about the U.S. Citizenship Act, because I do think that there is the will to get things done on the House side. I also know that Sen. Menendez, on the Senate side … he’s going to be relentless about this; he is going to work every avenue,” Escobar told reporters on a Zoom call Monday.

“We cannot continue punting on this, because we’re going to be having this conversation year after year after year … if we continue to kick the can,” she added. “And that’s not what the American people want.”

Tags Abigail Spanberger Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez Bob Menendez Donald Trump Elissa Slotkin Immigration Jerry Nadler Joe Biden Josh Gottheimer Linda Sanchez Pramila Jayapal Stephen Miller Veronica Escobar

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