Hispanic Democrats at odds on immigration as deal nears

Greg Nash

Confusion reigns among Hispanic Democrats as the clock winds down on the possibility of including immigration provisions in the final draft of the social spending bill.

The Congressional Hispanic Caucus (CHC) has sent mixed messages over its expectations on the matter, ranging from unfettered endorsement of any plan supported by President Biden — immigration reform or not — to red lines demanding inclusion of immigration provisions.

The diversity of positions on a core issue for the CHC stems in part from uncertainty over what immigration provisions the Senate parliamentarian, who has already nixed two immigration provisions, will deem compatible with a reconciliation bill.  

“I think that’s the frustration. I don’t think it’s so much disunity it’s that you know, even things that pass muster here in the House with our caucus, then you have this whole other hurdle that you have to jump over with not only the parliamentarian but one or two nitpicky senators,” Rep. Raúl Grijalva (D-Ariz.) told The Hill. 

“I think that’s part of the debate: what is doable and what is right? Some of us feel that, you know, let the Senate be the ones that undo it. But at the same time, there’s also the pressure, that what is doable and affects the greatest number of people is probably where we should be concentrating,” he added. “It’s a division of strategy, not of purpose.”

Still, frustration is growing between CHC members as Democrats close in on a deal on the spending bill, dividing those who prioritize a social package that could benefit historically disadvantaged communities, and those who see immigration as a litmus issue of Hispanic inclusion.

CHC Chairman Rep. Raúl Ruiz (D-Calif.) last week told MSNBC’s José Díaz Balart that he “is excited” about the social provisions in the broad proposal, adding that immigration should not be a deal breaker.

“You know what, we’re not just going to be confined to draw lines in the sand, we’re going to want to be flexible, nimble,” said Ruiz, adding that the Senate’s four CHC members are still lobbying that body’s parliamentarian on immigration.

That view runs counter to many immigration activists, who early on in the debate on the social spending package adopted the mantra that they would not tolerate Democrats “hiding behind the parliamentarian.”

And three CHC members — Reps. Adriano Espaillat (D-N.Y.), Jesús García (D-Ill.) and Lou Correa (D-Calif.) — have become known as “the three amigos” for their refusal to vote for any reconciliation bill without immigration provisions.

The caucus has 32 voting members in the House, a number that would be a remarkable voting bloc for any issue — if it coalesced behind a united position. 

Democrats have a slim majority in the House, and can afford to lose only a handful of votes on the reconciliation bill, while Senate Democrats need unanimous support within their caucus to pass any measure without Republican support.

The reconciliation process allows the Senate majority, in this case Democrats, to pass a budget-related bill with 50 votes plus the vice president’s tiebreaker, sidestepping a potential Republican filibuster.

The parliamentarian, an unelected official who provides advisory opinions on Senate rules, has so far rejected two proposals that would grant legal permanent residence to millions of foreign nationals.

Immigration advocates are especially frustrated about the parliamentarian’s rebuttal of a proposal that would essentially apply a statute of limitations for foreign nationals present in the United States since before 2010, granting legal permanent residency to millions of undocumented immigrants, people on humanitarian parole programs, and people on temporary work visas.

That proposal, known as a change of registry date, was the second pitch from Senate Democrats to the parliamentarian.

A third, which would grant temporary parole to undocumented immigrants, was presented on Tuesday.

Many immigration advocates, along with the three amigos and some other House and Senate Democrats, want Senate leaders to ignore the parliamentarian’s advice and have the Senate’s presiding officer rule for inclusion of the change of registry date, in line with Senate procedure.

“I don’t want to go back home and explain to my constituents that despite having a united government we can’t deliver,” said García.

But not every member is sure it’s worth drawing a line in the sand on a policy area that seems to continually be shot down on procedural grounds, especially at the risk of losing other policy priorities.

“I’m for fighting and doing as much as we possibly can to meet whatever the criteria is to get immigration in there,” said Rep. Lucille Roybal Allard (D-Calif.).

“But if you look at the bill, I mean, pre-K, home health care, [the] child tax credit… any one of those pieces of that legislation, it would be an incredible achievement to pass any one of those. And to bring all that down for something that is not possible, to me, it doesn’t make sense,” she said. 

But she added that Democrats must pursue immigration until “all avenues and doors are closed to us.”

Correa, one of the three amigos, aligned with García in saying he wouldn’t feel comfortable returning to his district with empty hands on immigration.

“Each one of us comes to Washington with mandates, with the concerns of our communities. I know why I came to Washington to represent my community and ensure that when I’m gone this country is stronger than it is today,” he said.

Rep. Ruben Gallego (D-Ariz.), warned colleagues against holding back on an immigration in a bill that otherwise might broadly appeal to Hispanics in their district.

“We should be trying to do the most we can, push the most we can — we shouldn’t be negotiating against ourselves,” he said.

But Gallego couched his position, reflecting on the importance of other social priorities in the bill, such as childcare and the child tax credit. 

“And so we have to balance the needs of our community,” he added. “And we’re trying to find that happy balance right now.”

While immigration is not a top issue for most Hispanic voters — the economy, health care, education and the environment usually poll higher — it is a defining issue for many of the community’s grassroots activists.

Many Democrats are concerned that a failure to include immigration provisions in the reconciliation bill could have a chilling effect on those activists, who form the backbone of Hispanic get-out-the-vote efforts.

Those concerns are heightened in the Senate, where procedural hurdles beyond the parliamentarian abound, particularly in the final bill’s amendment process.

“I am worried that the community won’t understand the nuances of Senate process,” Sen. Bob Menéndez (D-N.J.), one of four Senate CHC members, told The Hill in a recent interview.

And Senate Democrats are wary of disincentivizing Hispanic voters in key states like Arizona, Nevada and Georgia, where turnout could be the deciding factor for the Senate majority in 2022.

“They’re all places where significant Latino turnout or lack thereof could create the difference,” said Menéndez.

Still, most Hispanic Democrats support immigration reform but are not willing to publicly threaten to derail Biden’s agenda.

That’s in part because CHC members agree on the fundamental need for immigration reform.

“I think that you know we all want to see some level of immigration reform,” said Espaillat.

Tags Adriano Espaillat Congressional Hispanic Caucus Immigration reform Joe Biden Lou Correa reconciliation bill Ruben Gallego

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