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Democrats unveil bill offering pathway to citizenship for millions of undocumented immigrants

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Congressional Democrars have released a new immigration bill backed by President Biden. Politico White House correspondent and associate editor Anita Kumar and Axios political reporter Sarah Mucha spoke to "Red and Blue" host Elaine Quijano about who the bill would affect and what it could take to get it passed.

Video Transcript

ELAINE QUIJANO: Hi, everyone. I'm Elaine Quijano, and it's good to be with you. Thanks for joining us. Hundreds of thousands of people are still without power in Texas from a deadly and historic winter storm. President Biden approved a Federal Emergency declaration for Oklahoma Thursday morning, after doing so for Texas over the weekend. It will allow FEMA to coordinate disaster relief efforts in the region.

At least 24 people have died during the storms across the south. Many of those who have regained power do not have clean drinking water available. President Biden has opted to remain grounded at the White House as a new wave of snow and ice hits the East Coast. It caused his plans for today to be delayed. He'll now travel to Kalamazoo, Michigan Friday instead, to tour a Pfizer vaccine manufacturing facility.

But the snow isn't stopping everything. This afternoon, the White House and congressional Democrats unveiled a bill that would offer a path to citizenship for around 11 million undocumented immigrants. If President Biden can get it through Congress-- and that's still a big if-- it would be the first major new path to US citizenship in 3 and 1/2 decades. Here's how the bill's congressional co-sponsors themselves, children of immigrants, describe the measure.

LINDA SANCHEZ: This immigration reform legislation provides hardworking people and families who have lived here for years-- in some cases for decades-- an opportunity for them to earn their citizenship.

BOB MENENDEZ: They are essential workers, so essential that our economy would not function without them. Yet they live under constant fear of deportation. It's time to bring all 11 million undocumented out of the shadows.

ELAINE QUIJANO: Anita Kumar and Sarah Mucha join me now. Anita is a White House correspondent and associate editor for Politico. And Sarah is a political reporter for Axios. Welcome to you both. Anita, let me start with you. Immigration has been such an intractable issue. Let's start with this pathway to citizenship. Who would be eligible for a pathway to citizenship under this bill?

ANITA KUMAR: Well, you heard the Democrats talk about the 11 million undocumented immigrants who are in this country. So they are people that are already here. They're not looking to-- for people to see this bill and then come into the country this year and be eligible. So it would be people that were already here as of January, as of last month.

And it's just a variety of people who are here that have overstayed their visas or are here that are DREAMers, young people who came here to the country when they were children, those that are fleeing other countries-- all sorts of different people. They are saying that's about 11 million.

I will say that Republicans who oppose this bill-- and there are many of them today-- say that the number is much higher than 11 million, that it could be up to 20 million. And they're saying that that's why they oppose this bill, and they're calling it amnesty. So that's going to be one of the main sticking points here. What is that number, and do people think that they should be allowed to get this pathway to citizenship?

ELAINE QUIJANO: All right, so Anita, what else is in this, besides the opportunity for citizenship? And how is the role of ICE, Immigration and Customs Enforcement, expected to change?

ANITA KUMAR: Well, what this bill-- they're calling this bill a comprehensive bill. And what I heard today, though, is that a lot of people that even support the bill aren't calling it comprehensive. They're saying it's not nearly as comprehensive as 2013. So it does less along the border, and they say, look, we don't want to do as much on the border because we had a president, President Trump, who stressed the border wall and stressed border security the last four years. We don't need to do as much.

But you are seeing some things there to tackle drug smuggling and trafficking. You are seeing some changes in visas for family members, so to make it easier, if your family is already in the United States, to bring other family members here. And you are seeing some changes to work visas.

But you are not seeing a couple things that Republicans really wanted. Of course, I mentioned border security. And also something that comes up every single time, there's an immigration bill, which is this e-verification system, something that would let employers in the United States check if their employees are in the country legally. That's been a huge sticking point over the years. There are a lot of Republicans that want that to be mandatory. And this would just make it voluntary. So there's a lot less on the enforcement part than Republicans and some conservative groups would want.

ELAINE QUIJANO: So Sarah, previous administrations have really struggled to get traction on an immigration bill. How big of a lift is this going to be for Democrats?

SARAH MUCHA: Sure. Well, we've seen, obviously, there's a very narrow margin in Congress. In the House, there's just a few more Democrats than there are Republicans. And in the Senate, they have very little room for error. It's a very slim margin there. And so, I think this is going to really fall back on this-- it's a political issue. I followed Joe Biden on the campaign trail for nearly two years, and this is something that he named as a legislative priority. He promised that on day one, he would send a bill to Congress. Nearly a month later, we're seeing that being introduced.

It's really going to take that bipartisan push and the idea of trying to compel Republicans. So something that was mentioned, of course, is that border security component is something that will be in place of a wall. The White House is saying that they have sufficient border security promises. There are more of those technological advancements, such as stronger X-rays. The question is, of course, will that be enough to get Republicans over the edge? And I think what we're seeing right now is, the answer is no.

ELAINE QUIJANO: So, I mean, that leads me to my next question here. The White House says that it wants this bill to be bipartisan. They also said that about COVID relief, and then no Republicans have been on board. So realistically, when you look at how long this debate has been going on and some of those very specific thorny issues that both you and Anita have pointed out, Sarah, how realistic is it to get any kind of bipartisan consensus on immigration?

SARAH MUCHA: It's definitely going to be an uphill climb. I think one option that has been broached is this possibility of approaching it as a piecemeal-- an option. So for example, Senators Lindsey Graham and Dick Durbin introduced the DREAM Act. That's specifically for DACA. So that's only that one component for DREAMers, whereas this bill that was introduced is much more sweeping. It covers everything from border security to other components.

Senator Dick Durbin and Lindsey Graham, they obviously are supportive of this. And Democrats have voiced that that's one option that they would consider. But the priority, of course, is getting that larger bill passed. That's something that they really want to focus on. And I should note, Biden himself, the president, has said in the CNN town hall, he said that he would be willing to support these piecemeal options, but as long as they don't come at the expense of his broader bill.

ELAINE QUIJANO: Hmm, OK, well, we will wait to see what happens with that debate. Anita, Sarah, we covered President Biden's meeting with union leaders on COVID relief yesterday, and they also talked about infrastructure, which is reportedly expected to be a focus in the president's next package. Anita, what are they aiming for? And how are Democrats responding?

ANITA KUMAR: Well, we don't have a ton of details, but we know that President Biden, when he was on the campaign trail before he was president, talked about a $2 trillion package. So this would be Build Back Better. That's his slogan that he has coined to talk about putting infrastructure projects out there, paying for them, and getting people back to work.

And so, I think that because of the pandemic and the way the economy has gone the last year, that would be sort of the next thing that they're looking at. But of course, we just talked about immigration. That's out there, and they've also been meeting with gun rights advocates-- sorry, they're opposed to-- they want gun restrictions. And that's been something that they are also looking at doing.

So, you know, the White House has said to us that they do not want to look at anything. They do not want to propose anything or put anything out there until they get this COVID bill passed. So that would be their number one priority. But then the obvious next thing would be, of course, the economy. So I think you could be seeing them starting to push on this infrastructure bill.

ELAINE QUIJANO: Hmm, all right, well, Sarah, we learned about two new stories relating to former President Trump Thursday. His daughter, Ivanka, says she will not challenge Florida Republican Senator Marco Rubio in a primary. And the number two House Republican, Steve Scalise, revealed that he visited Mr. Trump at Mar-a-Lago this week. How are Republicans approaching the former president?

SARAH MUCHA: Yeah, that's right, Elaine. I think the reality is that Donald Trump and his administration are here to stay. Obviously, in the House, there is more support. Republicans really see the former president as a force, with the notable exception of [INAUDIBLE]-- or I'm sorry, Liz Cheney, the Congresswoman.

And in the Senate, I think we see a little bit more leeway there with the now minority leader, Mitch McConnell, who has stood pretty starkly against the former president. He's distanced himself. We saw that scathing rebuke there on Capitol Hill after the Insurrection.

Now, while Ivanka Trump has said that she is not going to run, she's not going to put in that bid in Florida, there are still other family members who still might be running. And as we've seen, President Trump himself said that he will be backing any primary candidates or challengers in the midterms who espouse his sort of making America great again, America first ideology. And that's going to be something that we really see come up in the next election. We still have a little bit of time to go before then, but it's very easy to start thinking about that right now.

ELAINE QUIJANO: Yeah, it's something I always say to Anita. It's never too early, right, to start thinking about or talking about that next cycle. It'll be here before we know it. All right, Anita Kumar and Sarah Mucha, thank you both very much. Really appreciate it.