The House on Thursday is poised to pass a pair of popular immigration bills that once seemed like the tickets to a cross-aisle deal on one of Washington’s thorniest issues — but not lately.
With the GOP seizing on the growing migration crisis at the southern border, even the two measures to offer legal protections for farm workers and the group known as Dreamers have become intensely partisan.
The bills — which, taken together, would offer a chance at citizenship for roughly 3 million undocumented immigrants who have lived in the U.S. for years — are likely to get at least a few GOP votes. But both are expected to pick up less support than they did when the House last vote on the issues two years ago, as several Republicans now push for border security measures to advance alongside the bills.
“What is happening on the border today is probably the worst time the Democrats could offer to do this,” House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy told reporters Wednesday, days after returning from his own trip to the border, where he hammered President Joe Biden and Democrats for their policies.
The proposals’ lack of support from even the most immigration-friendly Republicans illustrates the punishing challenge before Congress as it tries to tackle small changes that boast broad public support, let alone President Joe Biden’s sweeping reform plan that would offer a chance at citizenship for 11 million people. Now that the political and humanitarian albatross of unaccompanied child migrants at the southern border belongs to Biden and not Donald Trump, Republicans are eager to weaponize the issue — putting any kind of broader reform further out of reach.
“They’re going to continue to throw rocks instead of working with us,” Rep. Veronica Escobar (D-Texas), who represents a border district, said of the Republican attacks.
Escobar is among the many Democrats privately pressing the White House to improve the situation, some of whom attended a Congressional Hispanic Caucus call with Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas on the issue Wednesday. So far, CHC members said the Biden administration is doing more than his predecessor to resolve the border quandary, though they’re still pushing for more coordination with the Hill, according to sources on the call.
“It is a very difficult situation, no doubt. It’s unacceptable and unsustainable. But [we] at least have an administration and a Congress willing to take action and move the needle in the other direction,” Escobar said.
Even before the swell of migrant children attempting to enter the U.S., Biden’s broader immigration plan had nonexistent GOP support. The expansive proposal has faced some internal divisions as well and currently lacks the votes to pass the House, prompting Democrats to start by voting on the Dreamers and farm workers bills — a more piecemeal approach they say could actually stand a chance in the Senate.
Senior Democrats said Biden’s plan is getting closer to securing majority House support, potentially with some tweaks at the edges to appease their party’s moderates. But House Republicans are showing no signs of willingness to engage in bipartisan talks on an issue that could be their key to clawing back the House majority next fall.
Still, immigration proponents hailed the Dream and Promise Act and the Farmworker Modernization Act as critical first steps to fix a broken immigration system. The first measure would provide a path to citizenship for an estimated 2 million undocumented immigrants who were brought to the U.S. as children.
The second measure, introduced by Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.) and Rep. Dan Newhouse (R-Wash.), would provide a pathway to citizenship for roughly 1 million farm workers and broadly expand the H-2A temporary agricultural worker visa program.
Both are top priorities of the CHC, which pushed House Democratic leaders to cancel its scheduled recess for this week so that the caucus could again send them over to the Senate — this time, under a Democratic president. Biden tweeted on Thursday to rally support for the bills ahead of the House’s votes.
CHC Chair Rep. Raul Ruiz (D-Calif.) said he knows “personally” that the farm worker bill would make an impact in the lives of millions.
“Due to a terrible tragedy in my family, I was brought to the United States from Mexico as a baby. My parents were farm workers who worked tirelessly, day in and day out,” Ruiz said.
Ruiz and other top Democrats are still vowing to go big on immigration in the coming months, despite the headwinds from the GOP.
“These two bills are not the fix, but they are a fix to part of the problem,” House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer said, describing the proposals set for House approval Thursday. “But we need to pass comprehensive immigration reform, and we’re going to do so in the coming months.”
Beyond Biden’s broader citizenship plan, House Democrats are also eyeing a measure that would help essential workers during the coronavirus qualify for citizenship, according to a person familiar with their plans. The CHC is also playing a central role in that effort.
Seven Republicans backed the Dreamers bill in the last Congress, while 34 voted for the farm workers legislation. Now, at least some of them appear to have changed their tune. Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart (R-Fla.) said he has issues with some of the recent tweaks made to the legislation protecting Dreamers.
Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.) said he will “probably” vote against the farm workers bill despite voting for it in 2019, citing both the border crisis and the fact that his state’s Farm Bureau came out against the legislation more adamantly this time around.
“It makes it tougher to pass any kind of immigration related issue if you don’t have some security with it on the southern border,” Cole said.
House Republicans unveiled a competing immigration proposal this week, sponsored by freshman Rep. Maria Elvira Salazar (R-Fla.), that pairs border security with other immigration changes. Those include protecting Dreamers, offering a 10-year path to achieving a renewable legal status for undocumented immigrants who have a clean criminal record and are employed, and expanding visas for agricultural workers.
“We’ve got to give dignity to 11 million people who are here, and who have been here … The system allowed them to stay. Then the system needs to find a solution,” Salazar told POLITICO. “At the same time, and in parallel, we have to take care of the border and reform our immigration.”
“So it’s a whole enchilada,” she added.
Ximena Bustillo contributed reporting.