Reforming America’s widely criticized immigration system has long eluded U.S. presidents of both parties. Now, with only slim Democratic majorities in both chambers of Congress, President Joe Biden is launching yet another effort to address the legal status of millions of undocumented immigrants, using the momentum of his first 100 days in office.
The effort is championed by some of his top lieutenants on Capitol Hill.
“We have an economic and moral imperative to pass big, bold and inclusive immigration reform that leaves no one behind,” Democratic Senator Bob Menendez said Thursday, introducing the 2021 U.S. Citizenship Act.
As outlined by the Biden White House, the broad legislation would provide pathways to citizenship for 11 million immigrants, including Temporary Protected Status holders, immigrant farmworkers and undocumented people brought to the U.S. as children, sometimes referred to as DREAMers.
A co-sponsor of the act, Menendez has worked on immigration issues for 30 years. He said he brought memories of past failures to this process.
“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 and dismiss everything, no matter how significant it is in terms of the national security,” he told reporters Thursday.
Former U.S. President Donald Trump’s push to fulfill a campaign promise to “build the wall” along the U.S.-Mexico border to deter illegal crossings kept immigration in the spotlight on Capitol Hill throughout his presidency. The longest partial government shutdown in U.S. history was triggered by Trump’s demand for $5.7 billion in funding for construction of the border barrier. The eventual spending bill Trump signed ending the shutdown included $1.3 billion in wall funding.
In 2013, during the administration of Democratic President Barack Obama, a bipartisan group of senators known as the “Gang of Eight” negotiated an immigration deal that passed the U.S. Senate with bipartisan support. But the bill, which paired a path to citizenship for the undocumented with enhanced border enforcement, failed to get a vote in what was then the Republican-led House of Representatives and did not become law. An earlier effort also failed during the George W. Bush administration.
Menendez was one of those eight senators in the 2013 bipartisan group. He told reporters Thursday that Biden has the experience to work out a deal with Republicans, who will look for increased funding for border security in return for legalizing immigrants.
“The president of the United States spent 36 years in the United States Senate. I think he has a sense of what it takes to negotiate,” Menendez said. “The reality is that we already have more money being spent in Border Patrol than the combination of all other federal law enforcement agencies put together.”
The legislation has very little chance of passage in its current form, given its scope and Democrats’ need to garner the support of at least 10 Republicans to guarantee passage through the Senate.
Republican Senator Chuck Grassley criticized Biden before he was even sworn in, saying in a statement, “Mass amnesty with no safeguards and no strings attached is a nonstarter. As we’ve seen before, that approach only encourages further violations of our immigration laws.”
Republicans on the House Judiciary and Homeland Security committees have also criticized the Biden administration’s rollback of Trump’s restrictive immigration policies as dangerous to U.S. security and unfair to American workers.
“This blatantly partisan proposal rewards those who broke the law, floods the labor market at a time when millions of Americans are out of work, fails to secure the border, and incentivizes further illegal immigration. President Biden's radical proposal is a non-starter and should be rejected by Congress,” said the House Judiciary Committee’s ranking Republican, Rep. Jim Jordan, in a statement Thursday.
A far more likely scenario is that the proposal will be broken up into smaller pieces of legislation that can be passed following bipartisan and bicameral negotiations.
“They have tried this numerous times to learn that large, multi-thousand-page bills just don't work; they die of their own weight in Congress,” Lora Ries, the senior research fellow for homeland security at the Heritage Foundation, told VOA.
“I think they'd be much more successful if they did individually issued bills, you know, but there's a trust issue as well, and that one side doesn't trust the other to, you know, pass that next single issue that each side wants. And so that's why these bills tend to snowball.”
During a televised town hall with CNN on Tuesday, Biden said he would be open to signing immigration reform that did not include a pathway to citizenship in order to address other issues in the system.
“Yeah, there's a whole range of things that relate to immigration,” Biden said.
Certain elements of the legislation could also present opportunities for negotiating with Republicans.
“I have had conversations with various of our Republican colleagues,” Menendez said Thursday. “Many of them have interest in parts of the legislation. Many of them are representatives of agricultural states and so they care very much about the elements on farm workers, others come from high tech areas are they care very much about the visa opportunities.”
But Biden also has to be mindful of the more progressive wing of the Democratic party, which will push him to use the political capital of his first weeks in office to secure sweeping change.
In a press call with reporters Thursday, House Progressive Caucus Chair Rep. Pramila Jayapal praised the Biden administration for the scope of the bill and said progressives were ready to use every possible legislative option to push as many reforms as possible.
“The robust immigration package is a very important first step, and I'm looking forward to working with my colleagues, both inside and outside the halls of Congress, to ensure that we’re centering DREAMers, farm workers, essential workers and immigrants that are at the core of the bill,” she said.
According to a June 2020 Pew research survey, three-quarters of U.S. adults favor providing permanent legal status to immigrants brought to the U.S. illegally as children. Support is less robust for legalization of all undocumented immigrants as well as further boosting U.S. border security.
Patsy Widakuswara contributed to this report.