Congressional Democrats unveiled President Joe Biden’s expansive immigration reform bill Thursday, which would provide an eight-year pathway to citizenship for 11 million undocumented immigrants, but already faces dim prospects for becoming law with such narrow Democratic majorities in both chambers.
The bill, introduced by Sen. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.) and Rep. Linda Sanchez (D-Calif.), would create an expedited pathway for so-called Dreamers and other select undocumented immigrants. It also would increase the number of available diversity visas, and directs more funding to immigration courts and technology.
“We have an economic and moral imperative to pass big, bold and inclusive immigration reform that leaves no one behind, not our Dreamers and [Temporary Protective Status] holders, not our farm workers and meat packers, not our essential workers and not our parents, friends and neighbors,” ” Menendez said on a call with reporters Thursday.
Menendez alluded to past repeated attempts and failures to pass big reforms.
“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,” he said.
In drafting a sweeping immigration bill early in his presidency, Biden is seeking to avoid what many Democrats viewed as a missed opportunity by former President Barack Obama to address the issue. As designed the bill has been praised widely by progressives and immigrant rights groups. But it’s unlikely to gain any Republican support.
Though co-sponsors characterized the bill as a historic step by the administration to address an overtaxed immigration system, few on and off the Hill think it can pass a 50-50 Senate.
“This bill was not designed to get to 60,” said a person close to the White House who was briefed on the bill. “There’s no pathway to 60.”
White House officials wouldn’t say if Biden is considering passing elements of immigration reform through a second budget reconciliation process later this year or if they are already talking to lawmakers about passing smaller items. But they conceded the end result could be very different.
“He was in the Senate for 36 years and he’s the first to tell you the legislative process can look different on the other end of where it starts,” a White House official said on a call with reporters Wednesday evening. “He still thinks that these are all the elements that should be in the package, but again, is willing to work with Congress to get something done.”
Sources close to the White House have said for weeks that the administration is open to passing targeted bills that could be more likely to garner 60 votes.
“There are many paths both substantively and tactically for how an immigration bill can move forward,” said one source close to the administration. “All options have to be on the table.”
Biden himself said as much during a town hall with CNN on Tuesday as he fielded questions on immigration. “There’s things I would deal with by itself,” he said. “But not at the expense of saying I’m never going to do the other.”
Democrats have been debating for more than a month what to do when Biden’s sweeping immigration overhaul lands on Capitol Hill. Those talks have only intensified in recent weeks as more Democrats coalesced around the idea of passing more targeted legislation versus putting legislative muscle behind a comprehensive bill that has little chance of becoming law.
House Democratic leaders have yet to make a final decision but several lawmakers and senior aides told POLITICO they believe the chamber will first try to pass a bill that offers a pathway to citizenship for Dreamers and immigrants from war-torn countries. A handful of Republicans crossed party lines and supported the bill last Congress.
“I salute the president for putting forth the legislation that he did,” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi told reporters on Thursday. “There are others who want to do piecemeal and that may be a good approach today. That’s up for the Congress to decide.”
The effort will likely happen the week of March 8 — the last time lawmakers will be in Washington to vote before a month of remote committee work and a two-week recess for Easter and Passover. House Democrats are also staring down an April 1 deadline to act — to bypass committee action, the party has to bring immigration-related bills that were passed last year to the floor by then.
The immigration debate is illustrative of the delicate dance Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer must navigate over the next two years: balancing demands for sweeping legislation from a liberal base with narrow majorities and calls for a more moderate approach from emboldened centrists who see themselves as a check on the left.
Capturing the divide in approach, the administration’s chief co-sponsor in the Senate, Menendez, is opposed to a piecemeal strategy.
“There are some in Congress from both parties who argue against going big on immigration reform,” Menendez said on a call with press Thursday. “Some still believe the answer lies in blocking all legal channels of our immigration system until we get our house in order. Others say we should leave the bigger, tougher questions for another day pursuing narrow reforms that nibble at the edges and leave millions of people behind. Personally, I couldn’t disagree more with both approaches.”
The White House insisted that its larger bill should come first to avoid the perception it is abandoning a comprehensive approach, according to two people briefed on the legislation. The White House has also been holding a series of conference calls with immigration advocates in the days before the bill was released, including ones with progressive groups Wednesday.