President Joe Biden’s expansive immigration bill will finally land on Capitol Hill next week. But supporters hoping for sweeping change now that Democrats control all of Washington are in for an early disappointment.
Facing a rapidly approaching April deadline to act, Democrats are instead coalescing around a targeted effort to pass popular immigration bills that already have bipartisan backing, including legislation to provide a pathway to citizenship for the undocumented group known as Dreamers and immigrants from war-torn areas.
The plan is sure to anger some Democrats, who have long pushed for a massive revamp of the nation’s immigration laws and see quick action under Biden as their most likely chance. But several Democrats told POLITICO they’re confronting the political reality — two chambers with very narrow margins — and don’t see a clear path to passage for a major bill.
“My motto is, get something done,” said Rep. Jimmy Gomez (D-Calif.). “Whatever we do, we can’t walk away empty-handed.”
Like many other Democrats committed to an immigration overhaul, Gomez didn’t publicly close the door to a massive deal, hoping to give Biden’s team a chance: “Does it mean a big immigration reform package? Maybe. Does it mean using budget reconciliation? Possibly. Or does it mean individual bills? Could be.”
But Democratic veterans say they learned from the party’s big immigration letdown in 2009, the last time it held all levers of power. Rep. Henry Cuellar (D-Texas) said he remembered then-President Barack Obama telling the Congressional Hispanic Caucus about his overhaul plans in April that year. The Blue Dog Democrat then leaned over to a colleague and whispered, “It ain’t gonna happen.”
And he warned the same thing could happen under Biden.
“Bottom line is, even when we had a supermajority in a better situation than we’re in right now, we did not pass anything,” Cuellar said. “I’m not saying no way, I’m just saying it would be very difficult.”
The divide over how to reshape the nation’s broken immigration system is a well-known Washington tripwire. But the question of whether to pursue a piecemeal approach or take one big swing has fresh urgency with Democrats in charge of Congress and the White House.
Democrats insist they’re pursuing a dual-track approach, with Sen. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.) and Rep. Linda Sánchez (D-Calif.) launching a full whip effort for Biden’s comprehensive bill while leadership tees up more narrow proposals for floor time, likely in March.
Brian Deese, director of the White House’s National Economic Council, and Jeff Zients, Biden’s coronavirus coordinator, will meet with the CHC next week. Several Democrats privately said they’re waiting on Biden to publicly signal he’s open to a more step-by-step path — something those close to him have expressed openness to, but the president and White House officials have yet to say outright.
April 1 looms on the calendar as Democrats face mounting pressure from immigration activists to move at least some key priorities. To skip another round of lengthy hearings, the party has to bring immigration-related bills that were passed last year — such as protections for Dreamers or a farm worker modernization bill — to the floor by then.
“I think there is some unity around the idea” of a piecemeal strategy, Congressional Progressive Caucus Chair Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.) said, while adding she would also push “very, very hard” for the broader plan Biden and his allies plan to release next week.
Jayapal, who started her career in politics as an immigration activist, said Democrats want to push forward on a bigger proposal while moving on a “parallel track” of bringing previously passed smaller bills to the floor.
Those tricky politics have already started playing out on the Hill as Democrats work to finalize their massive $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief bill. The debate raging behind the scenes: whether taxpaying undocumented immigrants should be eligible for the measure’s $1,400 stimulus checks.
Top Democrats spent multiple days convincing members of the CHC, led by Gomez, not to offer an amendment on the issue during that bill’s markup this week — a vote that would have been deeply uncomfortable for the party’s centrists.
The California Democrat ultimately decided not to force the vote, and later said in an interview, “It was something that we couldn’t reach agreement on.” Gomez added that he hopes to find a place for the measure in future packages and build support for it among his colleagues.
“Latinos in my district, since November, had a 1,000 percent increase in deaths because of Covid,” said Gomez. “And I believe that since these folks are paying taxes, they deserve to get some of those benefits.”
A similar non-binding amendment vote in the Senate last week also showed how sharp the divisions are, with eight Democrats breaking ranks to back a GOP amendment that would have prohibited undocumented immigrants from receiving checks.
Democrats have taken a small step to expand payment access since last year. They negotiated a new provision in December’s massive relief bill to fix a glitch that prevented U.S. citizens from receiving stimulus checks if someone in their household was undocumented. And in the Covid package moving through committee this week, Democrats expanded the eligibility pool for households to receive checks to include all children who are U.S. citizens regardless of their parents’ immigration status.
“The benchmark is the social security number,” said a White House aide.
But friction over the stimulus checks shows that despite party leaders’ leftward shift on multiple issues since the Obama years, Democrats are still fractured over how ambitious they can get on immigration.
Biden entered office facing demands from immigration advocacy groups to move legislation in his first 100 days, using that window to enact massive policy changes before Congress’ productivity plummets as lawmakers pivot toward the next election cycle.
And those expectations have sparked a frenzied internal debate over tactics and the timing of Biden’s plans.
“We need to see what combination of bills may indeed get those 60 votes,” said Rep. Judy Chu (D-Calif.), referring to the necessary threshold for Senate passage. Chu said she’s hoping that Biden’s bill can get there but acknowledged the uphill climb and said “at least there’s some alternatives, in case it doesn’t.”
Chu and other members of the group working on the Biden plan, dubbed “The Closers,” will start what she called “an all-out effort” on the Hill next week after they release the text of the president’s immigration package.
Senior House Democrats highly doubt they could wrangle 218 votes for a massive reform package and think the chances of passage in the 50-50 Senate are next to zero. Still, they’re keeping hope alive for a miracle.
Rep. Pete Aguilar (D-Calif.) said lawmakers are haunted by memories from the Obama administration, when Democrats missed their chance to muscle through immigration reform. Aguilar, a member of leadership, described Biden’s White House as learning at least some lessons from the past.
“We are in a different moment in the sense that we have the administration leaning in pretty hard on this topic and moving in sync with us and being so closely aligned,” Aguilar said.