Unorthodox immigration bill catches both parties by surprise

Unorthodox immigration bill catches both parties by surprise
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CORRECTION: Sen. Chris Coons represents Delaware in the Senate. His state affiliation was misidentified in an earlier version of this story.

A new bipartisan immigration bill is spurring mixed reactions from lawmakers eager to reform the system following an unorthodox rollout that caught many by surprise.

The legislation, spearheaded by Reps. María Elvira Salazar (R-Fla.) and Veronica Escobar (D-Texas), was unveiled Wednesday, with Republican sponsors wearing blue and some Democratic sponsors in red.

The 500-page Dignity Act is seeking to become the first bipartisan immigration bill to gain traction in a decade.

But it’s packed with priorities and pitfalls for both parties, and some grumbled they were blindsided by the release of closely held legislation.

It’s a dynamic that left sponsors calling on their colleagues to give the bill a chance to be a vehicle for bipartisan reform.

“This bill is not perfect. The minute it is released we will hear … from the left and right about all the things it does and all things it lacks and leaves undone,” Rep. Hillary Scholten (D-Mich.) said at the legislation’s unveiling. “But we cannot let the illusion of a perfect bill prevent us from doing what is right.”

The legislation includes significant resources for beefing up security at the border, a priority for the GOP, but primarily focuses on creating a 12-year pathway to citizenship at a $10,000 cost for those already in the U.S. — a priority for Democrats.

The legislation would also revise the process for seeking asylum, which has been at the center of the controversy around the removal of the COVID-era Title 42 rule, and create new immigration options for those seeking to come to the U.S.

It was unveiled days after the House GOP passed a border security bill without a single Democratic vote that guts asylum protections and has been deemed dead on arrival in the Senate.

Still, even the more generous reforms could draw opposition from Democrats.

Some are already expressing concern over the “humanitarian campuses” where migrants would be detained for up to 60 days while their asylum case is weighed.

“Compromise is in the eye of the beholder. Who compromised more?” said Rep. Salud Carbajal (D-Calif.) when asked about the bill. “From one perspective, [it’s] from the Democrat side.”

With Congress focused on the talks to raise the debt ceiling, many members said they needed more time to digest a bill, saying they had learned of its existence at the same time as the public.

That surprise element ruffled the feathers of lawmakers who have been working on immigration issues for years or decades.

“Everybody else is really beside themselves on this,” one Democratic source told The Hill. “This bill comes out of nowhere.”

“They kept it under wraps and they pumped it out. … So both the D’s and the R’s have no idea what’s going on.”

Escobar said she’s heard those concerns directly, including from members of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus (CHC).

“I have heard from a couple of folks that the preference would have been that the CHC as a whole would have had an opportunity to weigh in,” she said. “But this is a very challenging political environment, especially for Republicans who are willing to come to the table to talk about immigration reform. So we kept a pretty close hold on the language and on the bill because of the challenging political environment.”

“It’s not a reflection of a lack of respect for anyone who’s been doing this work for a long time. I’m a very deferential person. And I’ve always been a team player, but there’s a sense of urgency in communities like mine, and I think this is a good start,” she added, referring to her hometown of El Paso.

For the CHC, the bill drop came just two weeks after the caucus endorsed the reintroduction of the U.S. Citizenship Act, the White House-backed bill introduced two years ago that they see as the starting point for negotiations on immigration reform.

“I think the fact that we endorsed the U.S. Citizenship Act a week prior to that has people feeling a little bit sensitive about it,” said Rep. Jesús “Chuy” García (D-Ill.).

While he described that bill as the “most comprehensive,” he credited Escobar and Salazar for working together.

“Bipartisanship — there’s something to be said about it, if you can make it happen,” García said.

Salazar is also expecting pushback, including from those “in my Republican Party,” noting the bill includes “tougher measures and higher penalties” than the GOP immigration bill passed earlier this month.

Rep. Mark Green (R-Tenn.), who helped craft the GOP’s border bill, said it was necessary to first secure the border before doing anything else.

“My biggest concern about that is if we’re doing something on immigration before we secure the border,” he told The Hill. “We’ve got to secure the border, otherwise we create incentives that people just continue to come.”

The bill has gotten new co-sponsors since it landed, including Rep. Adriano Espaillat (D-N.Y.).

“The bill, going through it, has in it many of the things that I support. It has things that I’m not happy with, and I hope to change,” he said, declining to offer specifics.

“But I understand that in order to bring immigrants forward, there has to be this type of dialogue,” he added.

Rep. Raúl Grijalva (D-Ariz.) didn’t rule out supporting the measure but said moving the legislation would be difficult with the current GOP leadership.

“I don’t really see the possibilities with the people in charge of the Republican majority and the Freedom Caucus,” he said.

“I think the important message is for Democrats to try to put some solutions on the table that maybe some Republicans are going to support. That’s where we’re at,” he said.

The sponsors of the bill seemed to welcome that suggestion.

“This Congress has been trying to fix immigration for 36 years,” Salazar said Wednesday, calling the bill a historic endeavor. “But today it’s a new day. And if any other member in both parties wants to work with us, or has a better idea, welcome. We’re more than willing to work with them.”

Some in the Senate have noticed, with Sen. Chris Coons (D-Del.) called the Dignity Act “an important step forward.”

Even critics of the rollout gave the women spearheading the bill credit for their effort.

“I give praise and kudos for doing something bold, for kicking the tires, this is bold and gutsy, trying a different approach,” the Democratic source said. “And sometimes I think maybe this is the only way something will happen.”

This story was updated at 8:59 a.m.

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