The Memo: Biden bets big on immigration
President Biden is swinging for the fences on immigration, betting that the nation as a whole has become more liberal on the issue. But some in his party worry he could strike out.
The skeptics in Democratic circles worry that an electorate grappling with a once-in-a-lifetime pandemic will be unenthused about opening up a new battle over a historically divisive issue.
Advocates of reform point to polls suggesting widespread public support, not just for legalizing the status of people brought to the U.S. as children — the so-called Dreamers — but also for a path to citizenship for the unauthorized immigrant population at large.
A Quinnipiac University poll released early this month indicated that 65 percent of Americans believed unauthorized immigrants living in the U.S. should be given some means to become citizens. Twenty percent said they should be required to leave, while 9 percent said they should be allowed to stay but should not be eligible for American citizenship.
An eight-year path to citizenship is the central component in legislation introduced Thursday by Sen. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.) and Rep. Linda Sánchez (D-Calif.). The proposal, which has Biden’s backing, also calls for aid of $4 billion for Central American nations to try to ameliorate some of the economic forces that propel immigrants northward.
The Republican Party — which has taken several steps in a more hawkish direction on immigration during the Trump years — largely hates the proposal.
Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio), a staunch supporter of the former president, issued a statement Thursday blasting the plan as a “radical proposal” that is also “a non-starter that should be rejected by Congress.”
To the extent that such attitudes are widespread in the GOP, they greatly complicate the prospects of the plan winning passage in Congress, where the Senate is split 50-50 and Democrats hold only a slim majority in the House.
Even pro-reform voices acknowledge that the chances of getting 10 Republican senators to sign on — the number required to avoid a filibuster — are close to zero.
Fernand Amandi, a Miami-based Democratic strategist and pollster, said that many advocates of reform in the Latino community were nonetheless happy about the scale of the new plan.
“I think a lot of people hadn’t anticipated that President Biden was going to go so bold, so ambitious,” said Amandi, who is Cuban American. “It is inspiring many people that he is willing to go big.”
Amandi added that whether advances were made in one giant leap or in a series of smaller steps was largely irrelevant to the people who would be affected.
“The undocumented population could care less whether it is done through executive action, or through the passage of a massive bill in Congress, or piecemeal — so long as they can get to what they have been looking for for years, which is legal status.”
The political landscape for large-scale immigration reform is daunting, however. Major efforts undertaken during the presidencies of George W. Bush and Barack Obama both failed. The last major overhaul came during the presidency of Ronald Reagan.
Some Democrats, even those who accept there is a moral imperative to do something about the nation’s immigration system, worry about whether it is a prudent course for Biden to pursue amid the pandemic.
One Democratic strategist noted the Reagan reform came during an economic boom.
“People thought it was important to do, and honestly they didn’t see any great risk or cost,” said the strategist, who requested anonymity to talk candidly about the issue.
“Realistically, as long as we are in a national crisis over the pandemic, passing immigration reform is going to be extremely difficult,” the strategist added. “That doesn’t necessarily mean you don’t try, necessarily, but it does mean we have to be, I think, singularly focused on one thing — if we don’t defeat the pandemic, nothing else matters.”
It is plain that conservatives voices on immigration will oppose the Biden proposal lock, stock and barrel.
Asked what was wrong with the plan, Ira Mehlman of the Federation for American Immigration Reform replied, “Where do we begin?”
“Pretty much everything is wrong with it,” added Mehlman, whose organization wants to reduce immigration flows. “The biggest overarching problem is that there is nothing in the bill that serves the American public — there’s amnesty for people who broke our laws, access to workers for businesses that don’t want to pay American workers … and there is nothing here for border security.”
From Mehlman’s point of view, the silver lining is that Biden’s apparent willingness to consider a more piecemeal approach acknowledges that “this is a heavy lift.”
At a recent CNN town hall Biden suggested he would be open to a step-by-step process to advance immigration reform.
And some Republicans have indicated some appetite for more modest action.
Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) suggested in January that he was open to preserving the Obama-era program known as the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program that protects the Dreamers.
“Comprehensive immigration is going to be a tough sale given this environment, but doing DACA I think is possible,” Graham said.
Liberal advocates of reform are not holding their breath for GOP cooperation. They say that Democrats need to accept the need to go it alone, for immigration goals both large and small.
“Those of us who have worked with Republicans know that they ask for too much and deliver too little,” said Frank Sharry, the founder and executive director of America’s Voice, which campaigns for liberal immigration reform.
Sharry argued that the politics of the issue have shifted in a fundamental way.
“Immigration as a wedge issue has lost much of its edge in elections,” he said. “Democrats realize that instead of working to win over Fox viewers, they should move the 60 percent of the county that wants to do big things.”
Biden is set to put that proposition to the test.
The Memo is a reported column by Niall Stanage.
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