National Security

Biden immigration bill reveals hardened battle lines in post-Trump era

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President Biden’s comprehensive immigration bill quickly exposed firm battle lines on Capitol Hill, raising questions about whether the White House might break the legislation into smaller bipartisan pieces if it hopes to pass any immigration reform.

Congressional Democrats rolled out Biden’s legislation with force, emphasizing there would be little room for compromise on a measure that would create a pathway for citizenship for some 11 million undocumented immigrants living in the U.S.

“The reason we have not gotten immigration reform over the finish line is not because of a lack of will. It is because time and time again, we have compromised too much and capitulated too quickly to fringe voices who have refused to accept the humanity and contributions of immigrants to our country,” said Sen. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.), who is sponsoring the Senate side version of the legislation.

“There are some in Congress, I’ll say from both parties, who argue against going big on immigration reform,” he added. “Pursuing narrow reforms that nibble at the edges and leave millions of people behind.”

But Democrats face razor thin margins in both the House and Senate, meaning they will need to secure some GOP support if they want to get the full measure through Congress and onto Biden’s desk.

The bill’s introduction also comes amid continued support among GOP voters for former President Trump, who made hardline immigration policies a centerpiece of his administration and campaign.

The White House on Thursday signaled a willingness to work across the aisle.

“There are negotiations that will need to happen,” said White House press secretary Jen Psaki, who called the bill “a reset that was really needed to get an immigration bill discussed and negotiated, and that is what our effort is to do here.”

The comprehensive legislation provides a pathway to citizenship not just for Dreamers, who were brought to the U.S. illegally by their parents as children, but also for others already in the country, offering a maximum eight year track to gain citizenship.

It also increases numerous caps that limit legal immigration to the U.S. and sets aside $4 billion to address root causes of migration from Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador.

And while it invests in training and new technology at the border, it eschews past practices of pairing immigration reform with an increase in enforcement measures. The U.S. already spends more on border control than all other federal law enforcement combined.

Republicans immediately blasted the bill, zeroing in on border security.

“Senate Democrats have embraced the Biden-Harris immigration plan of amnesty and open borders. Granting amnesty to 11 million illegal immigrants, on a timeline quicker than any major legislation offered in recent history, without including any funding whatsoever to enhance border security is reckless and would fuel a never-ending cycle of illegal immigration,” Sen. Rick Scott (R-Fla.) said in his capacity as chair of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, the Senate GOP’s campaign arm.

“This is an unserious proposal that reflects how far left Senate Democrats have gone on the issue of immigration. Senate Republicans will not hesitate to share with the American people exactly how the Democrats’ open borders, amnesty proposal will put their families at-risk,” he added.

Rep. John Katko (R-N.Y.), ranking member on the House Homeland Security Committee, called the bill “a compilation of immigration activists’ wish lists,” arguing that “immigration reform must go hand-in-hand with border security.”

The bill landed the same day that Biden rolled out new deportation guidelines for Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officers, imposing temporary restrictions on causes for removing someone from the country. The agency is planning to release long-term guidelines later this year.

Jorge Loweree, policy director with the American Immigration Council, argued in favor of the Democrats’ approach, arguing they’re rejecting what didn’t work in the past.

“The thinking was, in order to get through Congress, the tradeoff is a significant investment in immigration enforcement. Those efforts have been unsuccessful,” he said. “This bill is sort of an acknowledgement of that.”

Congress has not passed major immigration reform since 1996, but Democrats believe this year will be different, pointing to the change in administration and the growing need for both parties to court Hispanic voters.

“There have been Republicans interested in doing this … but they’ve been gut punched by the previous administration every time they tried to do it,” Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) said on a call Thursday rolling out the bill.

Klobuchar said the coronavirus pandemic has also brought front and center the degree to which the U.S. relies on immigrants.

“We’ve now seen a year of our immigrant community on the front line. They’re the ones driving the buses; they’re the ones holding people’s grandparents’ hands when they take their last breath in the hospital room; they’re the ones that are in the schools on the front line and working in the convenience stores. And if people were not grateful for our immigrant community before, they better be now,” she said.

Menendez said he aims to recruit Republicans who have expressed interest in various portions of the bill, like those from agriculture-heavy states or those with a major tech presence that often rely on outside labor.

“So, the question for them is: Yes, you want that part, but what are you willing to join in in order to get that with other elements that are needed for some broader reform?” he said.

Some Democrats have already signaled a willingness to break the bill up into smaller pieces, either to pass standalone portions that are able to get more bipartisan support, or to take aspects with a financial element and attempt to pass them through the reconciliation process, which only requires a simple majority vote.

“There are others who want to do piecemeal, and that may be a good approach too. That’s up to the Congress to decide,” Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said at a press conference Thursday.

If some portions meet the fiscal-related requirements to use the reconciliation process, “that would be wonderful, because then we wouldn’t need the 60 votes,” she said.

Menendez expressed some openness to alternative pathways for the bill, whether through reconciliation or attaching portions of the bill onto other legislative packages.

“I think all of us would certainly say we want to see us attach significant elements to a moving vehicle that can make it happen,” he said. “In terms of reconciliation, I think there may be strong arguments to make that obviously this has very significant budget effects.”

But he rejected the idea of making any major compromises on the bill, saying that above all he seeks robust reform.

“I know there are some [for whom] 10 angels could come swearing from above that this is the best tailored legislation, that it will secure our border, regularize our system. And they would say, ‘No, it’s amnesty.’ They will never be satisfied, these politicians and pundits who preach xenophobia and hate,” he said.

“We know the path forward will demand negotiations with others. But we are not going to make concessions out of the gate. We’re not going to start with 2 million undocumented people instead of 11 million. We will never win an argument that we don’t have the courage to make.”

Tags Amy Klobuchar Bob Menendez comprehensive immigration Donald Trump Dreamers Immigration Jen Psaki Joe Biden John Katko Nancy Pelosi

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