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Opinion Why Joe Biden isn’t waiting on immigration reform

A Customs and Border Protection agent patrols the U.S. side of a razor-wire-covered border wall with Mexico east of Nogales, Ariz., in March 2019. (Charlie Riedel/AP)
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The last systematic immigration reform that became law passed in 1986, when Republicans still believed, as President Ronald Reagan did, that “it’s the great life force of each generation of new Americans that guarantees that America’s triumph shall continue unsurpassed into the next century and beyond.” Immigration reform legislation passed the Senate 68 to 32 in 2013, when Sens. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) and Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) — two of the Gang of Eight who championed the bill — still sounded like Reagan. It died in the Republican-controlled House. Does it have a shot now?

Joe Biden promised in his campaign that he would not let immigration reform take a back seat to other issues, as President Barack Obama let happen. Even with his economic rescue plan still making its way through Congress and his Build Back Better plan moving ahead, Democrats on Thursday introduced a comprehensive immigration bill. The Post reports that legislation includes “increased border technology to interdict drug traffickers and smugglers, higher penalties for employers who exploit undocumented laborers in the United States, and increased funding for immigration courts.” It also contains paths to citizenship both for "dreamers" and others:

Farmworkers, immigrants who arrived in the United States as children, and people with temporary protected status — granted to those whose homelands are deemed too dangerous to return to — would have the fastest route to naturalization. They would immediately become eligible for green cards and could apply for citizenship after three years.
Millions of other undocumented immigrants would be allowed to apply for citizenship after eight years, longer than the current five-year requirement but shorter than the path the Senate approved in 2013.
All applicants must pass background checks and have been in the United States as of Jan. 1, a requirement intended to discourage a migration surge to the southwestern border.

A cross section of groups from the Business Roundtable to the Center for American Progress sounded enthusiastic support for the bill. Still, with the House and Senate in barely Democratic hands, chances of a comprehensive bill getting passed are slight. At their respective briefings on Thursday, White House press secretary Jen Psaki and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) both left open the possibility that the bill could be broken up into smaller pieces.

Ten votes for immigration reform in a viciously anti-immigrant GOP is a tall order. It is unlikely some of the Republicans who voted for the 2013 bill will support it in the MAGA era. Sens. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) and Susan Collins (R-Maine), who tried to broker a Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals deal under the last president, are likely still on board, but Graham, Rubio and Sen. John Hoeven of North Dakota, who voted for the 2013 bill, cannot be relied upon this time. All four Republicans who announced they are retiring (Patrick J. Toomey of Pennsylvania, Richard Burr of North Carolina, Rob Portman of Ohio and Richard C. Shelby of Alabama) voted against the 2013 bill.

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So if the chances of passage are small and President Biden has so many other priorities, why put it out there now? First, Biden promised during the campaign he would. With certain Hispanic voters drifting into the Republican column in some states, it behooves Democrats to follow through. Second, it is popular. A path to citizenship with conditions polls close to 70 percent — and even higher when focused on dreamers. Third, Congress has shown it can do multiple things at once (e.g., impeach a former president and work on a covid-19 rescue plan), so there is no sense in waiting until other priorities are completed before taking the plunge. In fact, having so many legislative measures in the hopper at once may make it harder for Republicans to mount opposition to one of them.

However, the most important reason for moving ahead is that it is good policy. We need to straighten out our legal immigration system, which, contrary to what xenophobic propagandists say, provides growth, entrepreneurial strength and young workers (needed to support retiring baby boomers). Previous analyses have shown that immigration reform will bolster growth and increase tax revenue. On humanitarian grounds, those who have already integrated into the economy — many of whom are performing essential services during the pandemic — should be spared the constant fear of deportation.

Given the low expectations for Congress, any significant legislation, even if limited to high-skill legal immigration reform, border security and dreamers, would be a major win. Sadly, the progression of the GOP from a free-market party to a right-wing nationalist one makes it hard to imagine even a narrower bill making it through.

Read more:

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