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Mike Fernandez, a Miami billionaire and political megadonor who left the Republican Party to pursue bipartisan immigration reform, smiled into the camera last week as he announced his support for a Democrat-only plan to provide citizenship for millions of unauthorized immigrants.
“I was a Republican and became an independent because it became a party that I no longer recognize,” said Fernandez, a top fundraiser for former Gov. Rick Scott, during a press call with Florida U.S. Senate candidate Val Demings. “I’ve told our Democrats to do everything possible to get immigration in reconciliation.”
Less than a week later, Fernandez’s goal took a major hit.
On Sunday evening, Senate Parliamentarian Elizabeth MacDonough, an adviser to the U.S. Senate on parliamentary rules, said a pathway to citizenship for immigrants living in the U.S. illegally could not be included in a wide-ranging $3.5 trillion spending proposal that enacts most of President Joe Biden’s domestic agenda.
And the setback came as the Biden administration continues to ignore calls from Haitian advocates in South Florida and congressional Democrats to stop deportations of Haitians seeking refuge in the U.S. after July’s assassination of President Jovenel Moïse and August’s 7.2 magnitude earthquake that killed more than 2,000 people.
Instead, Biden’s Department of Homeland Security chose to increase the frequency of deportation flights after thousands of Haitians began crossing the U.S.-Mexico border and presenting themselves to immigration authorities in the last week. Images of Border Patrol agents on horseback appearing to whip Haitian immigrants circulated on Monday as Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas announced that deportation flights have increased to “at least one to three flights per day” with more expected later in the week.
Despite a Democratic majority in Congress and the White House, Democrats and advocates pushing for immigration changes now find themselves fighting their own party, with the Biden administration deporting Haitians and congressional leaders unwilling to depose the parliamentarian and rewrite Senate rules.
“I’ve just got to call a spade a spade, and what’s happening is completely unacceptable in our country,” said Thomas Kennedy, a Miami-based immigration activist and Democratic National Committee member. “It’s really just disturbing to see the images of Border Patrol agents on horseback with whips in their hands. The imagery is just terrible. It evokes the worst aspects of our history.”
The divide within the party was present during a press call on Monday with New Jersey Democratic Sen. Bob Menendez, a major proponent of changing U.S. immigration law. After activists on the call said the Senate parliamentarian must go if she does not acquiesce to Democratic immigration policy changes, Menendez said he did not share their position.
“I understand their view and their passion. The parliamentarian under Senate rules is the final word on what is and is not permitted under the rules,” Menendez said. “Senator [Chuck] Schumer cannot just get rid of the parliamentarian if he chooses, that would take 51 votes.”
A possible alternative
Menendez said he’s now in favor of changing the registration date for an immigrant who can apply for legal status, which currently allows eligible immigrants who came to the U.S. before 1986 to apply for a green card. In his view, using reconciliation to change the date would not significantly alter the law enough for the parliamentarian to overrule Democrats for a second time.
Demings, who is seeking to run against Republican Sen. Marco Rubio in 2022, called for the Senate to “move forward” and pass immigration legislation despite the parliamentarian’s ruling. She also reiterated calls to halt deportations to Haiti, provide humanitarian parole for Haitians at the U.S.-Mexico border and extend Haiti’s Temporary Protected status cut-off date to August 14, the day of the earthquake.
“The Senate must find alternate pathways to complete this work, and every Senate Republican should be held accountable for opposing immigration reforms that will protect workers, add an estimated $1.5 trillion to our economy and create 400,000 new jobs,” Demings said in a statement, citing figures from a UCLA study published in March.
Rubio’s campaign called Demings a “crusader for amnesty” who wants to “bypass over two hundred years of Senate rules in order to grant citizenship to illegal immigrants.”
Immigration politics in Miami
Immigration has long been a major policy talking point for lawmakers in Miami from both parties, with Rubio once joining a group of senators who tried to pass a bipartisan immigration bill in 2013 and Republican Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart a longtime proponent of changing the nation’s immigration laws.
But bipartisan efforts after the 2013 bill collapsed in the Republican-controlled U.S. House have largely stalled. Democrats are trying to revive the issue in the $3.5 trillion spending bill — and circumvent the Senate filibuster that requires 60 votes for most major policy changes — by arguing that a flood of newly documented immigrants will provide benefits to the U.S. economy through taxation and new jobs that outweighs the costs.
“Detractors say immigrants will be a burden on the federal budget, advocates say they pay taxes, pay USCIS fees so our stance is they are a net plus on the budget and economy,” Kennedy said. “Both sides for decades have argued, for better or worse, [immigrants] impact that federal economy and budget. It’s hard to understand why the parliamentarian doesn’t see that.”
Miami Republican Rep. Maria Elvira Salazar, who has argued that Republicans must make immigration policy changes a major priority, said that relying on the parliamentarian’s ruling gave immigrants false hope that a major policy change could be achieved without buy-in from both parties.
“Giving dignity to the undocumented should not be a partisan issue. I am willing to work with my party and across the aisle to get a real, lasting solution,” Salazar said. “As the parliamentarian noted, what can be done through a simple majority can also be repealed in the same manner, and we cannot play with people’s lives like this.”
Salazar has a plan that would provide a 10-year work visa for undocumented immigrants followed by a five-year program that would give them permanent resident status, combined with border funding. Her ideas could be a preview of immigration policy discussions if Republicans gain control of Congress in 2022.
Biden administration ignores activists on Haiti
Even before July’s assassination and August’s earthquake, Haiti activists, congressional Democrats and South Florida elected officials were urging the Biden administration to stop deporting Haitians by plane under Trump-era immigration rules.
The Department of Homeland Security hasn’t heeded their calls.
Tessa Petit, a Haitian-American who works as the Florida Immigrant Coalition’s director of operations in Miami, said 272 Haitians were deported on Sunday and three more flights departed Texas for Haiti on Monday morning. She said the U.S. government wants to send six flights per day to Port-au-Prince after an influx of migrants arrived in Del Rio, Texas, in the last week.
“They’re taken to detention for four to six days with no access to take a shower, brush their teeth or nothing,” Petit said. “Then they put them on a bus, telling them they were going to be processed, they get on a plane and then they realized that they’re just landing in Haiti.”
Petit said the U.S. has a responsibility to not deport Haitians but care for them because U.S. policies in Haiti for years failed to alleviate poverty or provide economic opportunity. She said many of the Haitians who were deported in recent days will attempt to come back once they save enough money.
Petit and Kennedy were particularly appalled at images of Border Patrol agents on horses challenging migrants.
“This is taking us back centuries,” Petit said. “This is triggering for a nation that freed itself from slavery. This is triggering for a nation like the United States where Black folks had to fight for their freedom.”
Petit said Biden administration officials who spoke with her organization said deportations will continue despite their objections, which were shared by Miami U.S. Rep. Frederica Wilson and Miami-Dade Commissioner Jean Monestime, who is Haitian-American.
“I am concerned that these rushed measures may constitute a violation of international law by deporting those refugees without diligently screening them to determine whether they have a reasonable claim to fear returning to Haiti,” Monestime said in a statement.
And Fernandez’s Immigration Partnership and Coalition Fund, which was founded after the businessman swore off GOP politics, acknowledged “as it stands right now there’s so many unknowns” regarding the future of immigration policy changes.
“We urge Congress to work around the parliamentarian’s ruling,” said interim IMPAC Fund executive director Arianny Eduardo. “But as it stands we don’t know what that will be.”
Miami Herald staff writers Jacqueline Charles and Douglas Hanks contributed to this report.