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Hispanic Democrats warn of the perils of dropping immigration proposals from Biden’s domestic spending bill

A migrant waves a U.S. flag as he walks north along a coastal highway in Mexico on Oct. 25.
A migrant waves a U.S. flag as he walks north along a coastal highway in Mexico on Oct. 25. (Marco Ugarte/AP)
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Democrats who have been frustrated by the lack of progress on making sweeping changes to the immigration system are warning party leaders that Congress needs to include something in President Biden’s signature domestic policy package for the immigrant communities it has promised to help and is counting on to show up in big numbers in the 2022 midterm elections.

What should be included continues to be a subject of intense debate because of a complicating set of factors that include what policies would comply with the Senate rules governing the bill and the reluctance of vulnerable Democrats to endorse anything they worry Republicans will attack them for on the campaign trail.

But immigration advocates view the bill as the best chance to do something to show immigrant communities aligned with the party that their concerns are being taken seriously, and they argue the issue cannot be kicked down the road once again despite the polarizing nature of the debate. It would also keep a campaign promise made by Biden to protect undocumented immigrants and their families after years of attacks under President Donald Trump.

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“If immigration were excluded from the Build Back Better bill, it would be devastating. It would cause a tremendous uproar in the immigrant community, certainly in my district,” said Rep. Jesús “Chuy” Garcia (D-Ill.), referring to the Democrats name for Biden’s proposal. “Many people would see it as a slap in the face, and it would have tremendous consequences for the future.”

The pressure is on to find some kind of compromise with House leaders planning to hold a vote on the bill — which includes funding for education, health-care and climate change programs — this week along with a companion infrastructure package.

After Democrats struck a deal Tuesday to include a proposal intended to lower the cost of prescription drugs, immigration remains the biggest issue to be ironed out.

Reps. Luis J. Correa (D-Calif.), Adriano Espaillat (D-N.Y.) and Garcia are pressuring leaders to include reforms after reiterating their threat to vote against the sweeping $1.75 trillion economic and social spending package if it does not include some immigration policies. Currently, the framework provided by the White House has allotted an extra $100 billion for immigration, but with the caveat that legislative text will be written “consistent with the Senate’s reconciliation rules.”

That’s a reference to the procedural thicket Democrats find themselves in because of the way they have decided to pass the bill. They are using a process known as budget reconciliation to advance Biden’s agenda because it prevents the legislation from being filibustered in the Senate. But it also limits what can be included in the bill to provisions that primarily effect spending and tax laws.

The arbiter of Senate rules, the parliamentarian, has already shot down two Democratic attempts to include immigration provisions in the reconciliation package, arguing they do not comply with the rules because their main purpose is not spending or taxation.

That has left Democrats scrambling for what they can squeeze through the arcane process governing the bill because Republican opposition to any immigration policies supported by Democrats means they would be filibustered if considered under the normal legislative process.

The focus now is on a proposal that would provide work permits to millions of undocumented immigrants, shielding them from deportation but not establishing a pathway to citizenship. Senators involved in crafting the proposal are hoping this can pass muster with the parliamentarian and are waiting for an assessment of the legislative text from the office that determines the spending and tax effect of bills to buttress their case.

At a news conference with advocates Tuesday, Garcia said a separate approach known as registry, which would allow immigrants to apply for a green card, the precursor to citizenship, if they arrived before a certain date, “is still in play” in the House proposal.

“We’re pressing hard for that,” he said.

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The current legislative language includes provisions that would move the registry deadline from 1972 to 2010, allowing undocumented immigrants who have come to the United States in that time frame to apply for a green card. But that is looked upon skeptically by vulnerable Democrats who foresee the Senate stripping out the provision given that the parliamentarian has evoked concerns over whether it could be included in the bill.

To appease moderate Democrats’ concerns, members of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus involved with the latest negotiations are trying to hammer out a deal with legislative language similar to bills the House passed with bipartisan support earlier this year, according to several people familiar with the deliberations.

 “We have already voted on legislation to provide a path to citizenship for Dreamers, for TPS holders, for farmworkers. So if in the end, we get something similar to that, we’ve already supported that, all of us in the Congress,” said Rep. Veronica Escobar (D-Tex.).

In an interview, Espaillat said he and his colleagues are in discussion with moderate Democrats to hear them out on their electoral concerns but also to convince them that changing the registry date, or granting undocumented immigrantss work permits instead, would benefit the economy.

A fallback plan is to keep the $100 billion in the legislation and put it toward such things as funds for the Justice Department and the Department of Homeland Security to reduce green card backlogs, eliminate certain penalties that would allow people who applied legally to the United States for citizenship to receive their naturalization faster and reunify families that had been separated at the border or through deportation, according to two members familiar with the discussions who, like others, spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe the private talks.

So many different proposals have been discussed that advocates are starting to feel exasperated with Democrats as negotiations enter their final stretch.

“We appreciate your willingness to say you will ‘pull every lever,’ but what levers are we talking about?” Julio Perez, an executive committee member of the National TPS Alliance, which represents immigrants with temporary status but not a path to citizenship, said in a statement in response to the four Latino Senate Democrats who said they would push for immigration reform. “Just how far will you go for immigrants?”

Others pressured the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, which has not unified behind a particular proposal. Most Hispanics are U.S.-born, and undocumented immigrants hail from all over the world. But the largest share are from Mexico and Central America.

Angelica Salas, executive director of the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights, an immigrant organization based in California, said the Congressional Hispanic Caucus should stop “acquiescing to the idea” that immigration can be put off.

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“I want them to stop taking ‘some day, some other day’ as an answer,” she said, her voice breaking. “I‘m sorry, I’m just very upset at what’s happening in Congress right now.”

Democrats also face an internal political problem: Several members facing tough reelection fights next year don’t want to vote for an immigration proposal they worry Republicans will weaponize against them.

Several of these members have separately approached Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and other House leaders over the past several days to say that they do not want to vote on immigration provisions, according to two aides to vulnerable Democrats, especially if the language is likely to be stripped out in the Senate.

“Why are you forcing front-liners to walk that plank?,” one aide said, referring to the name the party gives its vulnerable members. “There’s no gain because it won’t become law.”

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While most Hispanic members acknowledge that full passage of the Build Back Better Act will help attract independent Latino voters who prioritize access to the economy and health care, the failure to acknowledge immigration as a priority could dissuade participation from voters who have long been promised reforms.

“I think this is it. We got to take advantage of this. In the end, we’re not getting everything we want,” Rep. Jimmy Gomez (D-Calif.) said about immigration reform in the domestic policy bill.

But some advocates say that Democratic leaders are willing to go only so far to get immigration provisions into a bill the president and the party desperately need to get into law — and they urge advocates to take what they can get, such as work permits, while pushing for citizenship in the future

“The future of the Biden administration lies on the chance that they will get these bills through,” said Oscar Chacón, executive director of Alianza Americas, a national network of migrant-led organizations. “If immigration reform of any kind becomes the obstacle to move forward, rest assured that they are going to just leave it behind again.”