WASHINGTON — It’s taken only days for Democrats gauging how far President Joe Biden’s bold immigration proposal can go in Congress to acknowledge that if anything emerges, it will likely be significantly more modest.
As they brace to tackle a politically flammable issue that’s resisted major congressional action since the 1980s, Democrats are using words like “aspirational” to describe Biden’s plan and “herculean” to express the effort they’ll need to prevail.
A similar message came from the White House Friday when press secretary Jen Psaki said the new administration hopes Biden’s plan will be “the base” of immigration discussions in Congress. Democrats’ cautious tones underscored the fragile road they face on a paramount issue for their minority voters, progressives and activists.
Even long-time immigration proponents advocating an all-out fight concede they may have to settle for less than total victory. Paving a path to citizenship for all 11 million immigrants in the U.S. illegally — the centerpiece of Biden’s plan — is “the stake at the summit of the mountain,” Frank Sharry, executive director of the pro-immigration group America’s Voice, said in an interview. “If there are ways to advance toward that summit by building victories and momentum, we’re going to look at them.”
The citizenship process in Biden’s plan would take as little as three years for some people, eight years for others. The proposal would make it easier for certain workers to stay in the U.S. temporarily or permanently, provide development aid to Central American nations in hopes of reducing immigration and move toward bolstering border screening technology.
No. 2 Senate Democratic leader Richard Durbin of Illinois said in an interview this week that the likeliest package to emerge would create a path to citizenship for so-called Dreamers. They are immigrants who’ve lived in the U.S. most of their lives after being brought here illegally as children.
Over 600,000 of them have temporary permission to live in the U.S. under Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA. Former President Barack Obama created that program administratively and Durbin and others would like to see it enacted into law.
Durbin, who called Biden’s plan “aspirational,” said he hoped for other elements as well, such as more visas for agricultural and other workers.
“We understand the political reality of a 50-50 Senate, that any changes in immigration will require co-operation between the parties,” said Durbin, who is on track to become Senate Judiciary Committee chairman. He said legislation produced by the Senate likely “will not reach the same levels” as Biden’s proposal.
The Senate is split evenly between the two parties, with Vice-President Kamala Harris tipping the chamber in Democrats’ favour with her tie-breaking vote. Even so, major legislation requires 60 votes to overcome filibusters, or endless procedural delays, in order to pass. That means 10 Republicans would have to join all 50 Democrats to enact an immigration measure, a tall order.
“Passing immigration reform through the Senate, particularly, is a herculean task,” said Sen. Bob Menendez, D-N.J., who will also play a lead role in the battle.
Many Republicans agree with Durbin’s assessment.
“I think the space in a 50-50 Senate will be some kind of DACA deal,” said Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., who’s worked with Democrats on past immigration efforts. “I just think comprehensive immigration is going to be a tough sale given this environment.”
Illustrating the detailed bargaining ahead, Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, a moderate who’s sought earlier immigration compromises, praised parts of the bill but said she wants more visas for foreign workers her state’s tourism industry uses heavily.
Democrats’ hurdles are formidable.
They have razor-thin majorities in a House and Senate where Republican support for easing immigration restrictions is usually scant. Acrid partisan relationships were intensified further by former President Donald Trump’s clamourous tenure. Biden will have to spend plenty of political capital and time on earlier, higher priority bills battling the pandemic and bolstering the economy, leaving his future clout uncertain.
In addition, Democrats will have to resolve important tactical differences.
Sharry said immigration groups prefer Democrats to push for as strong a bill as possible without making any concessions to Republicans on issues like boosting border security spending. He said hopes for a bipartisan breakthrough are “a fool’s errand” because the GOP has largely opposed expending citizenship opportunities for so long.
But prevailing without GOP votes would mean virtual unanimity among congressional Democrats, a huge challenge. It would also mean Democrats would have to either eliminate the Senate filibuster, which they may not have the votes to do, or figure out other procedural routes around the 60-vote hurdle.
“I’m going to start negotiating” with Republicans, said Durbin. He said a bipartisan bill would be far better “if we can do it” because it would improve the chances for passage.
Democrats already face attacks from Republicans, eyeing next year’s elections, on an issue that helped helped power Trump’s 2016 victory by fortifying his support from many white voters.
House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., said Biden’s bill would “prioritize help for illegal immigrants and not our fellow citizens.” Sen. Rick Scott, R-Fla., who heads the National Republican Senatorial Committee, the Senate GOP campaign arm, said the measure would hurt “hard-working Americans and the millions of immigrants working their way through the legal immigration process.”
Democrats say such allegations are false but say it’s difficult to compose clear, sound-bite responses on what is a complex issue. Instead, it requires having “an adult conversation” with voters, Rep. Abigail Spanberger, D-Va., said in an interview.
“Yeah, this is about people but it’s about the economy” as well, said Spanberger, a moderate from a district where farms and technology firms hire many immigrants. “In central Virginia, we rely on immigration. And you may not like that, but we do.”
Alan Fram, The Associated Press