Grassroots groups ‘dismayed by lack of leadership’ from Hispanic Caucus on immigration

A coalition of grassroots immigrant groups and advocates are calling on the Congressional Hispanic Caucus (CHC) to push for immigration reform, after the group failed to embrace the issue in congressional negotiations last year.

In an open letter to the CHC, 31 groups led by Angelica Salas, president of the CHIRLA Action Fund and Gustavo Torres, president of CASA in Action, bemoaned the role of Hispanic Democrats in immigration policy negotiations leading up to the House vote on the Build Back Better bill (BBB).

“We remain greatly disappointed that, during the last year, as various interests sought inclusion in President Biden’s Build Back Better plan — legislation that was proposed as a budget reconciliation bill that would not require a 60-vote, filibuster-proof majority in the Senate — champions for immigration solutions were few,” wrote Salas and Torres.

In the lead-up to the vote on BBB, which cleared the House in November, various plans were proposed to include some form of relief for undocumented immigrants in the bill.

Senate members of the CHC explicitly called on their House counterparts to include broad provisions to update the registry date for undocumented immigrants – essentially signing off on a statute of limitations that would allow undocumented immigrants in the country since before 2010 to apply for legal status.

But House negotiators pared down that request to a parole option, which would grant temporary relief to undocumented immigrants, and which CHC senators said put them in a more difficult negotiating position in the upper chamber.

While grassroots advocates decried that compromise, some key members of the CHC like Arizona Rep. Raúl Grijalva (D) pointed to the fact that the House passed BBB and a slew of other immigration proposals that haven’t cleared the Senate.

“I don’t know why CHC members and Dem House members take flak for the Senate or White House. We did our job — the best available options for BBB and stand-alone legislation all sent to the Senate by House Dems. It’s time others did their jobs,” said Grijalva.

Still, the letter’s writers compared the CHC’s role in representing immigrants to the Congressional Black Caucus’s role in fighting for voting rights, drawing an unfavorable comparison for the CHC in terms of expending political capital on the issue.

“Indeed, while your colleagues in the Congressional Black Caucus were heroically battling for passage of voting rights legislation, in memory of the great Rep. John Lewis, who also fought for immigrants’ rights, we were dismayed by the lack of leadership from most of the 38 members of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus,” they wrote.

That disparity enraged immigration advocates, particularly as only three members of the CHC – Reps. Adriano Espaillat (D-N.Y.), Lou Correa (D-Calif.) and Jesús García (D-Ill.) – threatened to withhold their votes if sufficient immigration provisions were not included in the bill.

“The bill was in the House. It’s where we have the majority. It’s where we have the power, in the House. If the House sends a message that we really don’t —-ing care, how do you think it makes [Sen.] Bob Menendez’s [(D-N.J.)] and [Sen. Catherine] Cortez Masto’s [(D-Nev.)] job? It makes it harder for them,” said former Rep. Luis Gutiérrez (D-Ill.), who for years led the CHC’s immigration efforts.

Gutiérrez said the letter is a necessary appeal to a CHC that is uniquely positioned to provide political representation to immigrants.

“It’s about time that somebody spoke up. What we’re doing is pleading. Please. If not you then who?” said Gutiérrez.

“If you remain silent don’t expect anyone to stand up for millions and millions of people who live every day in fear. I hope this moment stands as a wake up call to my former colleagues in the Hispanic Congressional Caucus to step up: it’s your turn at the plate, it’s your turn at the plate.”

The letter will be displayed in The Hill Wednesday in a full-page ad funded by CHIRLA Action Fund, CASA in Action, and ABIC-Action.

CHC Chairman Rep. Raul Ruiz (D-Calif.) received the letter Tuesday, saying “there is an incredible sense of the urgency of now to pass immigration reform, especially during this pandemic when immigrant essential workers bore the brunt of the pandemic in supporting our nation.”

“We remain committed to continuing to work hand-in-hand with national immigration and Hispanic advocacy leaders who have been good partners at every step of the way to provide urgently-needed protections and relief for 11 million hardworking immigrant essential workers,” said Ruiz.

“Just last week, we met with leading advocacy groups to advance these shared goals. We will continue to use every tool at our disposal — legislative and executive — to pass immigration reform,” he added.

The advocacy leaders who signed the letter have historically relied on the CHC to take their agenda to Capitol Hill, with few other political groups willing to invest in coalitions that largely represent a constituency heavy in non-voters.

“The Congressional Hispanic Caucus, regardless of the specific districts individual members represent, is the voice for Latinos across the country,” said Torres, the head of CASA, in a statement. “We come to you from a place of deep love and respect for your leadership to underscore that we need you, day and night, to be the champions for undocumented farmworkers in Delmarva, poultry workers in Georgia, domestic workers in Seattle and their families and communities.”

While the letter is severely critical of the CHC’s role in BBB, it opens the door for House Hispanic Democrats to realign with grassroots immigration advocates.

“We recognize your efforts since the start of the Biden-Harris Administration, but they have not resulted in the passage of any permanent protections. What we now ask is for your fierce leadership to complete action this year on legislation to create pathways to citizenship for the undocumented,”

The publication of the letter exhibits a growing rift within the larger immigration movement and within Hispanic power structures, with Democratic members and party-aligned advocacy groups on one side, and grassroots and immigrant legal aid groups on the other.

That rift was laid bare as García, Correa and Espaillat publicly made their case to include and expand immigrant protections in BBB, while Democrats who fought to constrain those provisions didn’t face public scrutiny.

Gutiérrez blamed the CHC’s unwillingness to go to the mattresses on immigration on distractions brought on by loftier political aspirations.

“The first promise I made to myself was that I would never aspire to be a U.S. senator. I would never aspire to be a governor. I would never aspire beyond Congress of the United States. I would never let those aspirations dilute my passion, my commitment for fairness and justice for immigrants. Never. I think people have to do their jobs. The job they have today,” said Gutiérrez.

Updated: 7:56 p.m. 

Tags Adriano Espaillat Bob Menendez Build Back Better Congressional Hispanic Caucus Immigration Joe Biden John Lewis Lou Correa Raul Ruiz voting rights
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