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Feb. 28—WASHINGTON — The last time Congress passed a comprehensive immigration reform bill, Ronald Reagan was in the White House.
Thirty-five years and several failed attempts later, President Joe Biden and his congressional allies are pushing a dramatic overhaul of U.S. immigration laws. But some reform advocates worry the sweeping proposal has virtually no chance of passing and could imperil other bills that already have bipartisan support and could deliver relief they say millions of immigrants urgently need.
The comprehensive bill House and Senate Democrats introduced Feb. 18, dubbed the U.S. Citizenship Act, is based on a blueprint Biden unveiled on his first day in office. Its centerpiece is an eight-year path to citizenship for the estimated 10.5 million undocumented immigrants already in the country, while other provisions would remove barriers to family-based migration, increase worker protections and address the causes of migration from Central America.
Rep. Pramila Jayapal, a Seattle Democrat who leads the Congressional Progressive Caucus, said a major update to immigration laws is long overdue.
"Immigrants have been a political football for a long time," Jayapal said. "Our broken system has led to incredibly uneven playing fields across the country for undocumented immigrants who have been, frankly, on the front lines during this pandemic — putting food on our tables as farmworkers, working in health care — yet with no path to citizenship, no functioning immigration system."
The Democrats' proposal is notably thin on border security and law enforcement measures that have long been considered key to any bipartisan immigration deal. Rep. Dan Newhouse, a Central Washington Republican, called Biden's plan "a nonstarter," arguing the blanket amnesty for unauthorized immigrants and lack of enforcement provisions could incentivize illegal immigration.
"We can all agree that our immigration system needs reform," Newhouse said in a statement Feb. 18, citing the need to provide legal status to agricultural workers and immigrants brought to the U.S. illegally as children. "It is truly unfortunate that we cannot work together to deliver on these priorities for Americans."
Under the Biden plan, unauthorized farmworkers, refugees given temporary protection from deportation and the so-called "Dreamers" who entered the country as children could apply for permanent resident status immediately. But all three of those groups would also receive that status through two separate bills that passed the House in 2019 with the support of Newhouse and other Republicans.
The GOP lawmaker and third-generation farmer from Sunnyside spearheaded the Farm Workforce Modernization Act with Rep. Zoe Lofgren, D-Calif., and it passed the House in December 2019 with 34 GOP votes, including every Republican from Washington, Idaho and Oregon. The bill, which did not get a vote in the Senate before the last Congress adjourned, would let some 325,000 people earn legal status, overhaul the H-2A guest worker visa program and require employers to check workers' legal status.
The U.S. economy has long relied on immigrant workers, especially in the agricultural sector since the "Bracero" program brought millions of Mexican men into the country between 1942 and 1964 to fill labor shortages. After the program ended, the demand for migrant workers remained while legal channels for them to enter the U.S. dried up. Today, the Department of Agriculture estimates about half of the country's agricultural workers are unauthorized immigrants.
Newhouse was also one of just seven Republicans who voted for the Dream and Promise Act in 2019, a bill that would provide legal status and a path to citizenship to Dreamers and immigrants in legal limbo under two ad hoc programs, Temporary Protected Status and Deferred Enforced Departure.
As of September 2020, there were an estimated 640,000 Dreamers in the country, including 16,000 in Washington and 2,700 in Idaho. Some 1.3 million others were eligible for the protection.
After the Trump administration's efforts to end the program — known as Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA — were blocked by courts, Biden restored it on Jan. 20, but the protections will remain temporary without congressional action.
Bipartisan efforts to negotiate comprehensive immigration reform failed in 2007 and 2013 despite the support of then-Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama, leading some lawmakers to conclude their best shot at reform is a piecemeal approach.
"The more comprehensive an immigration bill is," Newhouse said in an interview, "the more things that people are going to find they don't agree on."
"Even in conversations with some of my Democratic colleagues, they're not giving the administration's effort here any real chance of success," he continued. "I think it's more of a statement of what their priorities are. And then, privately, we're talking across the aisle about how we move forward on some things that are much more targeted."
But time is limited. House rules allow immigration bills that passed out of committee during the last Congress to bypass the committee process if they are brought to the floor for a vote of the full House before April 1.
Jayapal, who serves as co-chair of the House Subcommittee on Immigration and Citizenship, said Democrats plan to move five immigration bills forward before that deadline — Biden's comprehensive plan, Newhouse's farmworker bill, the Dream and Promise Act, a bill restricting presidents from issuing travel bans and legislation Jayapal championed to give immigrants access to a lawyer.
"We hope to get the comprehensive bill done in the next couple of weeks, so that we could bring all five immigration bills to the floor at the same time, but nothing is going to delay anything else," Jayapal said. "As soon as we have the votes for the comprehensive bill, we'll bring it to the floor. I believe we can get that done before April 1, along with these other four, but ... if that doesn't happen, of course we're not going give up the shot to get these individual pieces to the floor before April 1."
Democrats hope to capitalize on rising support among voters for immigration reform, an issue whose profile rose amid former President Donald Trump's efforts to sharply restrict both legal and illegal immigration. A Feb. 24 Politico/Morning Consult poll found 60% of voters back the proposal's path-to-citizenship provision. A June 2020 Pew Research Center survey found three-quarters of voters, including a majority of Republicans, favor giving legal status to Dreamers.
"There is very bipartisan support across the country for comprehensive, humane reform," Jayapal said, pointing to public backlash to Trump's moves on immigration. "In some ways, maybe all that cruelty backfired, because Americans are very clear that immigrants do contribute to our country, businesses are very clear that we need to have legal channels for people to be able to come into the country."
Unlike the stimulus package Democrats are gearing up to pass through a process known as budget reconciliation that requires just 51 votes in the Senate, at least 10 Republicans would need to join all 50 Democrats to pass Biden's comprehensive immigration proposal. Sen. Bob Menendez, a New Jersey Democrat who introduced Biden's plan in the Senate, acknowledged Jan. 21 that would be "a herculean task."
Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., said Friday that Democrats should use the reconciliation process to create a path to citizenship to an estimated 5.2 million undocumented workers in essential jobs such as health care and agriculture, but it is unclear if Senate rules would allow such a move.
Newhouse said he worries Democrats' efforts to bypass bipartisan negotiations could hurt the chances of drawing GOP support on narrower immigration bills.
"People like to be consistent in their votes," he said. "So if you force a vote on the comprehensive package and people vote no, I think you probably would lessen the likelihood of them voting favorably on something later. I think it's dangerous to make people take a stand on an issue and then expect them to reverse themselves a week later."
Some Democrats have resisted a piecemeal approach in past immigration reform efforts, fearing it could divide a broad coalition of immigration advocates, and have instead pushed for a single reform bill. But Leydy Rangel, national communications manager for the UFW Foundation — a sister organization of the United Farm Workers union — said her organization wants Congress to pass what it can to deliver results for immigrants quickly.
"Winning builds momentum for more winning," Rangel said. "We need to win on immigration substantively for the real people, and when we do the work through these different pieces of legislation, that's improving lives and showing that immigration (reform) is a priority."
"Undocumented farmworkers deserve multiple vehicles to win legalization. It wouldn't be right to not move on pieces of legislation that are bringing relief to millions of people. We have to use every option that we have."
Even if the farmworker bill and Dream and Promise Act pass the House, there's no guarantee they would have the support among Senate Republicans needed to become law. Newhouse said he has been in talks with senators who want to expand his legislation to cover other workers, including those in food processing plants.
Rangel said the UFW Foundation, which helped craft Newhouse's bill under the last administration, also would like to see some changes now that Biden is in office.
Democrats have been cagey about their support for an incremental approach to immigration reform, but Biden has left the option open, telling CNN's Anderson Cooper in a Feb. 16 town hall, "There's things that I would deal (with) by itself, but not at the expense of saying I'm never going to do the other."
Rangel said her organization supports any bill to give unauthorized immigrants a chance for legal status, including Biden's broad proposal as well as the Dream and Promise Act, which "would relieve those members of our community who are undocumented from this fear that haunts them their entire lives," she said.
"We are in an immigration crisis, and we need to reimagine our immigration system," she said. "We support every piece of legislation that legalizes undocumented members of our communities, but we shouldn't just focus on one of those bills."
Orion Donovan-Smith's reporting for The Spokesman-Review is funded in part by Report for America and by members of the Spokane community. This story can be republished by other organizations for free under a Creative Commons license. For more information on this, please contact our newspaper's managing editor.