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Emboldened Democrats push for immigrant relief in next coronavirus response

Emboldened Democrats push for immigrant relief in next coronavirus response
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Democrats are increasingly bullish about pushing pro-immigrant coronavirus legislation through Congress, as the Trump administration pulls in the opposite direction, using the crisis to tighten immigration controls.

Administration officials have shunned immigration-based proposals in the relief packages — to the point where Democrats say the GOP refused to include he word "undocumented" in stimulus legislation — making clear to Republican members that the administration will not budge on its signature issue. 

Democrats have pitched a series of proposals to benefit immigrants in coronavirus relief packages, ranging from automatic extensions of visas and other immigration benefits to inclusion of otherwise ineligible immigrants in COVID-19 testing and relief.

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Those proposals have generally not made it into the final bill language, a reality that's started to gnaw at immigrant advocates.

Democrats say the goodwill earned by essential immigrant workers, particularly in health care, will force the Republican-controlled Senate to consider legislation it would have ignored before the pandemic, such as automatic extensions for Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) and the temporary protected status (TPS) programs, two immigration programs that President TrumpDonald John TrumpBiden says GOP senators have called to congratulate him Biden: Trump attending inauguration is 'of consequence' to the country Biden says family will avoid business conflicts MORE has fought to curtail.

"What coronavirus has made clear is how vital our DACA and TPS recipients are to continuing health care in America," Senate Minority Leader Charles SchumerChuck SchumerPelosi, Schumer endorse 8 billion plan as basis for stimulus talks Funding bill hits snag as shutdown deadline looms Trump supporters could hand Senate control to Democrats MORE (D-N.Y.) said on a call with reporters Tuesday.

"It's obviously an awful crisis, but I think it's showing Americans how much we need these folks to fight this crisis and it will help us gain support as we negotiate [the next stimulus bill]," added Schumer, who called on the administration to extend DACA and TPS permits automatically.

And House Democrats are playing a balancing act, as some of their members, particularly those who represent poor or minority districts, are starting to gripe about their priorities being left out of relief packages.

The Tri-Caucus — the coalition of the Congressional Black Caucus, the Congressional Hispanic Caucus and the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus — put its weight behind the Health Equity and Accountability Act (HEAA), which would expand the public health care system to address inequities that plague minority groups, particularly immigrants.

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HEAA has been introduced and rebuffed every Congress for the better part of two decades for various reasons, but it has mostly served as a marker of how minority caucuses envision legislation on health care equality.

Democrats say their GOP counterparts may be in for a penny in for a pound, as they've already supported an unprecedented level of spending to counter the crisis through recent stimulus bills.

"The pandemic is likely to have many consequences for our society, and I hope one of them is that my colleagues on the other side of the aisle will be more open to support new ideas about health care than they were before," Rep. Jesús García (D-Ill.) said during a Tri-Caucus call touting the benefits of HEAA.

"In the past few weeks we have seen Republicans vote for large government measures that they probably never imagined to vote for even last year,” he added.

But the nearly $3 trillion spent so far on coronavirus relief could also make Republicans gun shy on trying new approaches on other issues.

"What the Democrats are trying to do to make this case is throw everything up on the wall and see what sticks," said Ford O'Connell, a Republican strategist and former congressional candidate.

O'Connell said Republicans are weary of the massive spending already legislated this year.

"Many are asking, 'If I can't put on the brakes now, when?' " he said.

"This is a time when it's not going to work because everyone is so scared," he added.

But Tri-Caucus leaders see the timing as ideal, as health care workers — including immigrants — garner public sympathy for their role in fighting the pandemic.

Immigrants have been among the people who have worked in hospitals and other essential services like grocery stores during the pandemic.

"What a perfect time for the reintroduction of this bill," said Rep. Karen BassKaren Ruth BassJoyce Beatty elected next chair of Congressional Black Caucus Feinstein pushes for California secretary of state to replace Harris in Senate The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by the UAE Embassy in Washington, DC - Trump OKs transition; Biden taps Treasury, State experience MORE (D-Calif.), chairwoman of the Congressional Black Caucus.

"America is in shock to learn about all the inequities in health in our communities that we have known for all of these years," she added.

And they see an opportunity to push for immigrant rights to help counter the Trump administration's push for its own immigration agenda.

Trump last week announced a temporary suspension of new green cards for foreign nationals overseas and administration officials have hinted at expansions of that order.

Democrats say that's proof that Trump's renewed immigration restrictions are political in nature, driven by senior White House adviser Stephen MillerStephen MillerWhite House liaison barred from DOJ after pressing for sensitive information President says Trump Jr. doing 'very well' after COVID-19 diagnosis Donald Trump Jr. tests positive for COVID-19 MORE.

"Must've been a dream come true for Stephen Miller last week to hear the president of the United States of America say America is closed to immigration," said Sen. Dick DurbinDick DurbinCongress faces late-year logjam Funding bill hits snag as shutdown deadline looms Criminal justice groups offer support for Durbin amid fight for Judiciary spot MORE (D-Ill.).

The renewed focus on immigrants allows Democrats to hit at Trump and Miller — easy targets among the pro-immigration movement — but it was also meant to allay some base unrest that Democratic negotiators have not made a strong enough stand on immigrant rights.

But no one should hold their breath for Republicans to buy into their arguments as they are also mindful of their base, according to O'Connell.

"This is a winning issue for the Republicans, not just President Trump," said O'Connell. "Down ticket it doesn't behoove anyone to break ranks."