Democrats are preparing to push legislation through the House this week that would create a path to citizenship for millions of immigrants living in the country illegally, posing the first tests to President Joe Biden’s immigration agenda just as an influx of migrants is creating a new challenge at the border.
Facing internal divisions and mounting Republican pressure, Democrats plan to take a notably narrow approach for now. Instead of bringing up Biden’s immigration overhaul, which would legalize most of the 11 million unauthorized immigrants in the United States, the House will start with two measures covering groups regarded as the most sympathetic: people brought to the country as children, known as “Dreamers,” a reference to the never-passed DREAM Act; others granted Temporary Protected Status for humanitarian reasons; and farmworkers.
But with thousands more migrants, many of them unaccompanied children, showing up at the border daily, even those more modest steps face an increasingly uphill climb. Democrats concede they do not have sufficient Republican support to pass them in the Senate, and GOP leaders, eager to turn Democrats’ difficulties on the issue into a political liability, are using the mounting problems to stoke fear and opposition to any but the most punitive of changes.
“Why would you legalize anybody, sending another incentive to keep coming, until you stop the flow?” said Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., a leader of past bipartisan immigration efforts. “I just don’t see the politics of it — it’s just too out of control.”
Democratic leaders had hoped that by passing two of the most popular fixes to the larger immigration system, they could break a logjam that has doomed attempts by the last three presidents to broker more a comprehensive overhaul or deliver modest changes. Now, even their optimism for that approach is waning, and progressives and moderates remain at odds over Biden’s sweeping U.S. Citizenship Act.
“Speaker Pelosi has discovered that she doesn’t have support for the comprehensive bill in the House, and I think that indicates where it is in the Senate as well,” said Sen. Richard Durbin of Illinois, the No. 2 Democrat and chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee. “I wish we could move just one piece at a time, but I don’t think that’s in the cards.”
Sensing a political opening, Republicans have moved quickly in recent days to reprise some of the most pointed attacks of the Trump presidency based on the deteriorating situation on the border, where thousands of unaccompanied children and teenagers are in U.S. custody.
On Monday, Rep. Kevin McCarthy, the Republican House leader, led a dozen colleagues to the border near El Paso, Texas, to witness firsthand what he branded “Biden’s border crisis.” Sen. Tom Cotton of Arkansas elucidated the strategy during a private lunch at the Capitol Hill Club in Washington last week, privately telling Republican senators that Democrats’ “toxic” immigration policy would cost them their House and Senate majorities.
Top immigration aides to Biden argue that the bills the House is taking up this week are a starting point for his broader plan, part of a pragmatic “multiple trains” strategy to avoid the pitfalls that have befallen prior administrations.
Biden’s broader legislation would also seek to tighten border security and address the root causes of the migration surge, by allocating funding for scanning technology at the southwestern border and providing aid to bolster the economies of the countries that are the main sources of the influx. But those long-term solutions are bumping up against the urgent need to move thousands of migrant children and teenagers out of border detention facilities.
The surge in migration has been fueled in part by natural disasters and the pandemic’s toll on the economy in Central America, as well as violence and poverty in the region. But it is also the result of a perception among some migrants that Biden is working to unwind many of former President Donald Trump’s most draconian immigration policies and taking a more humane approach.
Alejandro N. Mayorkas, the Homeland Security secretary, said this month that the administration’s message was not “don’t come” but rather “don’t come now.” Top officials have said that Biden would restore the asylum process at the border but that it will take time to unravel the Trump administration’s policies.
Yet pressure is also building among the most progressive Democrats in Congress for the administration to move more decisively, as they regard the situation at the border with increasing alarm and fear that it is weakening the resolve of some of their colleagues to push for wholesale changes.
Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., said in a recent interview that she was worried that moderates in her party were trying to water down a plan that was “already pretty standard and not very controversial.”
Ocasio-Cortez said it took “so much work to get President Biden to a place that immigration advocates felt comfortable calling a positive step.”
“To see folks in our caucus try to undo some of that progress,” she said, “I think is really concerning.”
Progressives have also criticized Biden’s team for continuing to expel migrant families and for their handling of migrant children arriving without parents.
)Biden has begun gradually welcoming a limited number of asylum-seekers into the United States who were forced to wait in Mexico for months under a Trump-era policy. But he has kept in place a sweeping pandemic emergency rule Trump issued that empowered border agents to rapidly turn back migrants to their home countries without providing them the chance to ask for asylum, a policy both administrations have said is necessary to prevent the spread of the coronavirus in detention facilities.
The Biden administration has not applied the pandemic rule to unaccompanied minors at the border, whom the U.S. government is required to care for until it can find suitable sponsors for their release. But the shelters where such children are supposed to be housed — which are managed by the Department of Health and Human Services — until recently had restricted capacity because of the pandemic. As a result, many of the young migrants have remained instead in jails managed by the Border Patrol, administration officials said.
The situation has fed anxiety among immigration activists that the political will for long-needed changes to the system could dissipate just as Democrats are positioned to deliver them, with control of Congress and the White House.
Todd Schulte, the president of fwd.US, a pro-immigrant rights group, said Republicans’ contention that Biden had lost control of the border was a “bad faith argument” meant to galvanize their supporters against immigration legislation. Whether border crossings are up or down, “the answer is always, ‘We need fewer immigrants, we can’t possibly talk about a pathway to citizenship,’” Schulte said.
“This has been a losing political issue, but they’re still going to be doing it,” Schulte added. “It’s up to Democrats to decide. The Republican Party cannot stop the Democrats from passing the DREAM Act.”
The White House shares frustration.
“We have a lot of critics, but many of them are not putting forward a lot of solutions,” Jen Psaki, the White House press secretary, said Monday.
Democrats expect only a handful of Republicans to vote for the “Dreamers” bill, which also passed in 2019, and slightly more to approve the farmworkers bill, which is the product of bipartisan negotiations and would also revamp an agricultural visa program for future migrants. Together, they would effect as many as 5 million people.
Biden’s more comprehensive plan has even less support. Moderate Democrats have been hesitant to take difficult votes on a bill they know will be pilloried by Republicans and are pushing for a change in approach to more closely resemble past efforts that traded legalization of unauthorized workers for tighter security at the border.
Rep. Henry Cuellar, a centrist Democrat from a border district in Texas, said he would like to see “something a little more moderate, especially when it comes to border security.” But he conceded finding a deal was like a balloon: “You press on one side, it expands on the other and you lose some people.”
In the meantime, Republicans smell a potent political weapon.
“Joe Biden and those around him in the White House recognize this is a political catastrophe for them,” Cotton said in an interview. “They are caught between a rock and a hard spot. On the one hand, you have large numbers of the American people who disapprove of what they see at the border. On the other hand, you have a strong voice in the Democratic Party that disparages borders in general, that thinks we should be granting asylum to all these people.”