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In preparation for President-elect Joe Biden to drop a sweeping immigration reform bill as soon as he enters office, congressional Democrats and advocates are drafting legislation, taking the temperature of Republicans — and gearing up for what they hope will be the defining chapter in a decadeslong battle to pass a pathway to citizenship for all undocumented immigrants.
Biden has said he plans to “immediately” introduce an immigration bill after taking office on Wednesday. And top Latino and immigrant advocacy groups who’ve seen details of the coming package said they were stunned by the boldness of Biden’s plan.
On Thursday, Biden, Vice President-elect Kamala Harris, policy advisers and three Latino Cabinet nominees met with advocates to outline the president-elect’s immigration, coronavirus and economic agendas.
Hector Sanchez Barba, head of Mi Familia Vota, who has criticized Biden on immigration policy in the past, wouldn’t share specific details discussed in the private meeting. Still, he said, Biden’s plan “is the most aggressive agenda that I have seen on immigration reform from day one — not only the legislative package, but also executive orders.”
In the meeting, Susan Rice, who will lead Biden’s Domestic Policy Council, was adamant that the incoming administration wasn’t about to introduce comprehensive immigration reform to simply let it sit on a shelf, said Jess Morales Rocketto, executive director of Care in Action.
“We were totally floored by the immigration plan and the level of clarity,” she said.
Domingo Garcia, president of the League of United Latin American Citizens, said Biden’s team told attendees of the meeting the bill would give 11 million undocumented immigrants a pathway for citizenship, with an eight-year wait as a permanent resident. Biden also plans an executive order instituting a “four-year extension” of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program.
The eight-year time frame, outlined by Harris during an interview with Univision this week, was a disappointment for Garcia who said he plans to push for a five-year wait instead. During the meeting, Biden also told advocates not to hold him to “100 days” to pass immigration legislation because impeachment proceedings in the Senate “could slow things down,” said Garcia.
Some on the call, like Garcia, thought Biden was attempting to lower expectations. But others on the call, Morales Rocketto said, thought Biden was making a good-natured joke about pushing legislation through a jam-packed calendar during the impeachment process.
And Democrats, aware of the difficulties, are split on the best way to proceed. Democratic lawmakers expect Biden’s proposal to establish a starting point. But big questions remain about what could be included in a coronavirus recovery package instead of an expansive immigration bill. Some lawmakers say they want Biden to get whatever he can get passed as soon as possible, even if it means adopting a more piecemeal approach. Others argue a true overhaul of the nation’s immigration system can only happen in one large package forcing Congress to meet the issue head-on.
Meanwhile, Rep. Joaquin Castro (D-Texas), backed by more than a dozen labor and immigrant rights groups, said he is planning to introduce legislation allowing undocumented essential workers to apply for permanent resident status. Under the bill, those workers would be eligible to apply for citizenship in five years. In a press call on Friday, incoming Sen. Alex Padilla (D-Calif.) said undocumented immigrants on the frontlines "deserve not just Covid protections and labor protections but the security of a pathway to citizenship."
“I hope the Congress and our nation will recognize that these immigrants stepped up when the United States needed the most and put themselves in danger every day by serving as essential workers during this deadly pandemic,” Castro said in an interview.
Rep. Veronica Escobar (D-Texas) said a “piecemeal” approach is not an option. “The administration has a very limited window of opportunity before House members begin running for reelection,” she said. “Every day that passes is a day that the window shuts just an inch more...We’ve got to get it done in one fell swoop.”
Sen. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.) agreed. Taking a step-by-step approach, such as attaching legal status for select groups to must-pass bills poses a “great risk” one that would leave some undocumented immigrants uncovered.
Still, soon-to-be Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin acknowledged the dicey road ahead with a tied Senate and slim majority in the House. “I am realistic. I have been in the middle of this battle for two decades,” said Durbin, adding that he has to take Biden’s immigration goals and “ translate them into a 50-50 Senate and a 50-50 Senate Judiciary committee.”
“I'm not ruling out a larger bill, but I want to take it a step at a time,” said Durbin (D-Ill.), who along with Menendez, has started conversations with his GOP colleagues. “I don't want to overplay my hand. I want to be mindful that bipartisan support is essential to victory in the Senate.”
Key Democratic lawmakers and congressional staff have been in “constant communication” with Biden’s transition team and policy writers about the immigration plan, said Rep. Raul Ruiz (D-Calif.), chair of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus. “We're going to have to be flexible in our strategic approach and with the ultimate objective of getting legislation signed into law.”
Castro’s coming bill establishes a broad definition for essential workers that could cover some 5 million undocumented immigrants, including Dreamers and Temporary Protected Status recipients, according to an outline first shared with POLITICO. And it could be passed as a standalone bill, or as part of coronavirus relief or an immigration package, Castro said.
The measure will define essential workers as any worker who has “performed any service or labor” during the pandemic including in sanitation, health care, retail and construction, and any worker deemed essential by state or local entities. It would also provide a pathway for the family members who’ve had to stand in for any essential worker who died due to Covid-19 and promotes a pathway for relatives to promote family unity.
Biden’s proposal is expected to provide an avenue for some essential undocumented workers but whether it goes as far as Castro’s proposal is uncertain.
Rep. Sylvia Garcia (D-Texas) said she supports including status protections in a coronavirus relief bill for agriculture and meatpacking workers who are undocumented. Democratic lawmakers and advocates said based on conversations with Biden’s team — as well as Biden’s comments -- they are confident Biden will take a different approach to immigration than President Barack Obama. The immigration policy advisers Biden’s added to his team from advocacy groups like America’s Voice and The Immigration Hub are a positive sign, they said.
“We’re all ready to work and take our marching orders,” said Garcia.