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Biden immigration reform touts path to citizenship

Alexandra Jaffe
Associated Press

Washington — After decades of failed attempts to pass comprehensive immigration legislation, congressional Democrats and President Joe Biden are signaling openness to a piece-by-piece approach.

They unveiled a broad bill on Thursday that would provide an eight-year pathway to citizenship for 11 million people living in the country without legal status. There are other provisions, too, but the Democrats are not talking all-or-nothing.

“Even though I support full, comprehensive immigration reform, I’m ready to move on piecemeal, because I don’t want to end up with good intentions on my hands and not have anything,” said Texas Rep. Henry Cuellar. “I’d rather have progress.”

The pragmatic approach is a recognition of the past failures to deliver on a large-scale immigration overhaul — and how success could be even more difficult in a highly polarized, closely divided Congress.

The Democrats’ legislation reflects the broad priorities for immigration changes that Biden laid out on his first day in office, including an increase in visas, more money to process asylum applications, new technology at the southern border and funding for economic development in Latin American countries.

But advocates for expansive immigration say they could pursue smaller bills focused on citizenship for groups such as young immigrants brought to the United States by their parents as children, for agricultural workers and other essential labor.

“I know what it’s like to lose on big bills and small bills. The fear that people have experienced in the last four years deserves every single opportunity, every single bill to remedy,” said Greisa Martinez Rosas, executive director for United We Dream, an immigration advocacy group.

“The biggest thing here is that we’re going to get something across the finish line, because not doing so is not an option.”

The broad legislation — which includes a pathway to citizenship, but not much in the way of the enhanced border security that’s typically offered to win Republican votes — faces long odds with Democrats holding a slender majority in Congress.

The bill would immediately provide green cards to farm workers, immigrants with temporary protected status and young people who arrived in the U.S. illegally as children. For others living in the country as of Jan. 1, 2021, the plan establishes a five-year path to temporary legal status. If they pass background checks, pay taxes and fulfill other basic requirements, then, after three years, they can pursue citizenship.

The plan also would raise the current per-country caps for family and employment-based immigrant visas. It would eliminate the penalty barring those immigrants who live in the U.S. without authorization and who then leave the country from returning for three to 10 years. It also would provide resources for more judges, support staff and technology to address the backlog in processing asylum seekers.

The bill would expand transnational anti-drug task forces in Central America and enhance technology at the border. And it would set up refugee processing in Central America, to try to prevent some of the immigrant caravans that have overwhelmed border security in recent years.

The plan includes $4 billion spread over four years to try to boost economic development and tackle corruption in Latin American countries, to lessen pressure for migration to the United States.

Michigan advocates applauded the administration's overhaul and said they welcome reform, but ultimately, success will be measured when citizenship for millions of undocumented immigrants becomes a reality.

"I personally know people who have had their families broken apart due to the broken immigration system that has been in place. We believe that the Biden administration is taking a step in the right direction, and we're glad that he's trying to make good on campaign promises," said Dawud Walid, executive director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations Michigan chapter. 

"We hope that he does continue to go forward, which will include lifting some of the inhumane sanctions that have been placed on Iran," Walid said.

Susan Reed, managing attorney at the Michigan Immigrant Rights Center, said the Citizenship Act of 2021 offers hope and is long overdue.

"Tens of thousands of Michiganders have been waiting so long for any opportunity to apply for permanent legal immigration status. We urge our leaders to advance this legislation as quickly as possible," Reed said.

But the Michigan Republican Party criticized the bill in a statement.

"The Biden-Harris administration's open borders immigration agenda will hurt working families," said Ted Goodman, the party's communications director. "We support legal immigration, and policies that protect our borders and respect the legal immigration process."

Kara Moberg, managing attorney for Farmworker Legal Services based in Kalamazoo, said the organization can neither support nor oppose the bill. But the bill includes a "Fairness for Farmworkers Act," which would eliminate the long-standing exclusions of farm workers receiving overtime and certain minimum wage protections through the Fair Labor Standards Act.

"Congressional testimony indicates that the exclusion of agricultural labor from the act's protection was to prevent the Black labor force from receiving wages equal to the wages of the white labor force. Farm workers, who are primarily people of color, are still excluded from the federal overtime protections, and the majority of states have still not extended overtime pay to farm workers," Moberg said.

More than 79,000 food and agriculture workers in Michigan could be affected by the legislation, said Diana Marin, supervising attorney with the Michigan Immigrant Right Center, which focuses on farm worker and immigrant worker rights.

"We are very excited to support a path for legalization. Particularly Michigan farm workers have borne the brunt of the pandemic. About 50% of the state's agriculture and food workers don't have immigration status. We've been advocating for them to receive the protections they deserve, including the vaccine," Marin said.

Even before the new bill was unveiled, Democrats were reining in expectations for their final result. Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Dick Durbin has said any final Senate bill likely “will not reach the same levels” as Biden’s proposal.

Indeed, comprehensive bills negotiated by bipartisan teams of lawmakers failed multiple times during Republican George W. Bush’s administration and again in 2013 during Democrat Barack Obama’s.

Republican Donald Trump signed legislation that increased border security, and took executive action to restrict legal immigration to the U.S. and remove some protections for immigrants living in the country set by Obama. Biden has signed a number of executive orders rolling back some of the Trump restrictions, but he promised throughout his campaign and transition that immigration overhaul would be a top priority.

The White House insisted Thursday there have been no decisions on strategy. But multiple immigration organizations said administration officials had signaled in recent conversations that they were open to a multilevel approach in which lawmakers would press forward on the comprehensive bill while also pursuing individual pieces.

Cuellar, who was in office for most of those early, failed attempts, said many in the Congressional Hispanic Caucus are still committed to a comprehensive overhaul. He said the White House reached out to him and he advised them to start with a broad bill, but he added that “reality is going to hit people, hopefully,” and more lawmakers will get on board with a more incremental approach.

Indeed, Biden himself suggested in a CNN town hall Tuesday night that “there’s things I would deal by itself.” One of the lead sponsors of the bill, New Jersey Sen. Bob Menendez, too, seemed to suggest Thursday he was open to a less expansive approach.

“If we can get certain elements of this standing up and passed individually both in the House and the Senate, that’s great,” he said.

Tom Jawetz, vice president for immigration policy at the Center for American Progress, said that Biden’s decades of experience in the Senate have given him a realistic view of what’s possible.

“He also knows how to count votes, and he knows what it takes to get legislation across the line,” he said. “And so I think there is real energy behind pressing forward on all fronts and seeing what shakes out.”

Democrats have a third option: Using a parliamentary maneuver to attach some immigration items to a budget bill, which would then require just 51 votes to pass. Advocates have been pressing the new administration to consider attaching a pathway to citizenship for some to an economic stimulus package that they’re expected to introduce after they’ve passed the COVID-19 bill. That approach would almost certainly face a strong procedural challenge.

“The ultimate goal is to make sure that 2022 doesn’t come around, and we have done nothing on immigration for another Congress,” said Jawetz.

Democrats have expressed optimism that this time will be different not just because of the shift in strategy, but also because they say the politics of the issue have changed. They point to support from business groups for reform, and they note that Latinos are not a monolithic Democratic voting bloc, that Trump improved his showing with Latino voters in the 2020 election.

Martinez Rosas said that if Congress fails to take action on reform, it will “absolutely” be a problem for Democrats in elections in 2022 and beyond.

“This will be the fight, the defining fight,” she said. “The difference between now and in 2013, is that the progressive movement is unified around the acknowledgment that immigration is a must-fix issue.”

Detroit News Staff Writer Sarah Rahal contributed.