Biden's bold immigration overhaul may face a Republican wall in Congress
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[January 22, 2021]
By Ted Hesson and Mica Rosenberg
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - It was a bold
opening salvo from the incoming administration of President Joe Biden:
an immigration bill that would open a path to citizenship for roughly 11
million people living in the country illegally. But even the Democratic
senator leading the charge acknowledged on Thursday that passing it
would be "a Herculean task."
The senator, long-time immigrant rights champion Robert Menendez, said
in a video call with business groups, labor unions and migrant advocates
that they will need to convince a broad swath of Americans to support
the measure, while allies in the U.S. business community would have to
push for it with "everything that you've got."
Biden has made the immigration reform bill the centerpiece of his
efforts to reverse former President Donald Trump's hardline immigration
legacy. It signals his willingness to spend significant political
capital on an issue that is a priority for businesses, labor unions,
faith groups and activists.
In addition to the legalization measures for qualifying immigrants, the
proposed bill would allow certain immigrants who were deported during
the Trump administration to apply to return to reunite with family or
for other humanitarian reasons. The proposal also raises the number of
available legal work visas.
Biden, who took office on Wednesday, faces long odds, however, to win
over enough Republicans in a closely divided Congress to pass the bill,
congressional aides, experts and advocates told Reuters.
The Biden administration released a summary of the bill on Wednesday,
but the text - which is expected to be hundreds of pages - has not been
Menendez said Biden was committed to passing immigration reform and that
he would not have backed the measure if it was purely a symbolic
statement of Biden's position.
"If I thought that this was just a messaging bill that was going to go
absolutely nowhere, then I wouldn't have lent my name to it," Menendez
said. "Having said that, yes, this will be tough."
Control of the Senate is split 50-50, with Vice President Kamala Harris
as the tie-breaking vote. Democrats would need to win over 10
Republicans to avoid a "filibuster," a procedural hurdle that can delay
or block legislation from coming to a vote.
Democrats control the House of Representatives, but by a narrower margin
than in the previous Congress.
The challenges in the divided Senate are already on display as Democrats
and Republicans negotiate the terms of their power-sharing agreement.
Mitch McConnell, the Senate's top Republican, is seeking assurances that
the Senate will retain the filibuster, according to his office.
White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said during a briefing on Thursday
that the administration was hopeful Biden's bill would provide "a moment
of reset" that could restart discussions among lawmakers.
Biden's immigration push comes after Trump, a Republican, spent four
years cracking down on legal and illegal immigration. Many Republican
lawmakers backed Trump's tough immigration policies.
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Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) speaks during the confirmation hearing for
Nominee for Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines on
Capitol Hill in Washington, U.S., January 19, 2021. Melina Mara/Pool
Republican Senator Tom Cotton of Arkansas tweeted on Monday - before
Biden was sworn in - that the new president was "wasting no time
trying to enact his radical immigration agenda." He called the bill
"total amnesty" with "no regard for the health or security of
Americans, and zero enforcement."
Senator Marco Rubio of Florida, who was involved in bipartisan
immigration reform talks in 2013 before ultimately abandoning the
effort, called Biden's bill a "non-starter" in a statement this
Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin told reporters at the Capitol on
Thursday that he had "reached out to half a dozen Republicans on
immigration and they've been open to the conversation."
Democrats could have more success with narrower immigration measures
tied to must-pass spending bills or pandemic relief packages than
trying to attract Republican support for a broad bill, said Frank
Sharry, executive director of the pro-immigrant America's Voice.
Another option would be to attempt to eliminate the filibuster or
use other procedural moves to pass a bill with only 51 votes, he
Alex Conant, a Republican strategist who worked as a spokesman for
Rubio during the immigration talks in 2013, said the bill does not
appear likely to win over Republicans, but could evolve into a more
Reuters/Ipsos polling show support for offering a path to
citizenship for immigrants in the country illegally has risen since
2014, with 60% of Americans in favor of it in a survey in February
Some advocates argue Americans are now more aware of contributions
by immigrant workers because of the pandemic.
"Who stepped up to the plate when we were all locked in our houses
and who put their lives on the line?" said immigration attorney
David Leopold, who served as a volunteer adviser to the Biden
campaign. "Undocumented workers."
(Reporting by Ted Hesson in Washington and Mica Rosenberg in New
York; Additional reporting by Richard Cowan in Washington, editing
by Ross Colvin and Aurora Ellis)
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