Biden fulfilled his campaign promise to send an immigration bill to Congress on the first day of his administration, but the legislation has taken a back seat to more pressing issues for the White House, such as the recently enacted coronavirus relief bill and his infrastructure proposal.
Even without the political fallout from the administration’s handling of a surge of Central American migrants at the border, a comprehensive immigration bill would be difficult to get through Congress given the need to secure at least 10 Senate Republican votes for its passage.
Given this political reality, according to the official, Biden will also use his address to a joint session of Congress to push for more targeted legislation that would guarantee a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants brought to the United States as children, known as “dreamers,” allow farmworkers already in the country to earn legal status and ease restrictions on visas for seasonal agricultural workers. Both bills passed the House with bipartisan support: The dreamers bill passed with nine Republican votes, while the farmworkers legislation had the support of 30 Republicans.
To make his sell, especially to skeptical Republicans, Biden will outline how immigrants play a crucial role in maintaining a healthy and competitive economy, the official said.
Former president Donald Trump made restricting immigration a signature issue during his time in office and often used harsh rhetoric, which was at times called racist, to describe foreigners seeking to come to the United States. Many Republicans rallied behind this agenda, including Trump’s campaign to build a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border, making any bipartisan deals a nonstarter.
But with Trump out of office, there have been some signs that there could be agreement between the parties on some immigration issues.
A bipartisan group of 14 senators — five Republicans and nine Democrats — are meeting in hopes of striking a deal on a narrower immigration compromise that would marry border security priorities important to Republicans with a pathway to citizenship for farmworkers and dreamers. Senators are discussing all bills that have been introduced, including a bipartisan measure recently proposed by Sens. John Cornyn (R-Tex.) and Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.) on border security. These talks, however, are not very far along and a deal would be difficult to strike.
Biden is also expected to applaud Vice President Harris for her work on engaging with El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala — the Northern Triangle countries many migrants are leaving to escape violence and poverty. Republicans have criticized Harris for not traveling to the southern U.S. border to assess the situation there, but the White House has dismissed these attacks, noting that her assignment is to deal with the cause of the migration as other administration officials focus on problems at the border.
In another sign that the administration is prioritizing immigration, first lady Jill Biden has invited dreamer Javier Quiroz to take part in her virtual guest reception ahead of the address. Originally from Mexico, Quiroz came to the U.S. at three years old and has spent the past year caring for covid-19 patients in Houston.
Given that seating is extremely limited in the House chamber due to covid precautions, the first lady will not have guests in her viewing box as is customary.
Members of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus are continuing to push Biden to include parts of proposed immigration legislation into the second plank of his infrastructure package, the “American Families Plan,” which he plans to announce on Wednesday. Although it is not expected to be included, caucus members may be pleased with the president’s attention to immigration during his first speech before Congress.
The handful of caucus members who met with Biden last week urged him to mention his support of the bills already proposed in Congress.
In June 2012, President Barack Obama issued an executive order that allowed dreamers to stay in the country and work without the threat of being deported. Democrats have been seeking to codify that program ever since, particularly after it survived Trump’s attempt to end Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), the policy’s official name.
Many Republicans have expressed support for permanently addressing the fate of dreamers, and it remains at the center of any potential immigration deal.
“I have always said that I’m open to finding — it doesn’t necessarily have to be the U.S. Citizenship Act, but it has to be more robust than dreamers,” said Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. “If dreamers is all that happens, the community won’t be happy and I won’t be.”
Several immigration advocacy groups are teaming up to launch a $50 million campaign across two dozen states to push lawmakers to pass Biden’s proposed immigration reform bill and push back against Republican attacks on the president’s border policies.
America’s Voice and Care in Action has already bought $1 million in airtime in Washington, D.C., Arizona and California to remind viewers of Republican “hypocrisy” at the border under Trump, when GOP members were less vocal about similar, if not as big, groups of migrants heading to the U.S.-Mexico border.
As for Republicans, several strategists responsible for political messaging said that striking a deal on immigration may dampen efforts to pressure Biden on the migrant surge at the border, which Republicans have grabbed onto as a political issue.
“What we really need is for [Biden] to admit that his policies and rhetoric caused the crisis. The results of this crisis are as predictable as they are disastrous — for both migrants and American citizens,” House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) said on the House floor last week while the chamber debated legislation that would bar future presidents from implementing countrywide travel bans — a bill introduced in response to Trump’s attempt early in his administration to ban travelers from several majority-Muslim countries.
Biden rescinded Trump’s travel ban on Muslim countries during his first day as president, completing a campaign promise.
Republicans blame Biden policies — such as his decision to halt the construction of Trump’s border wall and an order clarifying that only undocumented immigrants who pose a national, border or public security risk should be deported — as reasons there are currently problems dealing with the number of migrants at the border.
“These priorities are almost a parody of left-wing governance,” Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said last week. “Not securing the border. Not a better plan for these children. Just ‘woke’ proofreading. This is not going to get the job done.”
Biden has defended his approach, saying many of Trump’s policies were inhumane and that the flow of migrants at the border is, in part, seasonal.
The president has faced the fiercest backlash from his party for breaking his promise to raise the cap on the number of refugees that can be admitted to the United States each year. The White House quickly reversed course and said it will have a new proposal out soon.
Biden faced sharp criticism from activists early on in his campaign for not paying enough attention to the Hispanic community, a mistake he tried to reverse by pledging to send Congress an immigration bill on his first day as president.
Since taking office, Biden has taken several actions on immigration to fulfill promises he made on the campaign trail, such as signing an executive order that created a task force to unite 600 children separated from their parents during the Trump administration. He has partially completed some promises, like preventing undocumented military veterans from deportation and streamlining the naturalization process. He also attempted to pause deportations for his first 100 days, a move that was blocked by a judge in Texas.