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Biden signals he's flexible on immigration overhaul

As he prepares to push hard for the broadest possible overhaul of the nation's immigration laws, Biden has also signalled openness to more targeted approaches that could win citizenship for smaller, discrete groups of immigrants living in the United States without legal permission

By Michael D. Shear
Published: Feb 18, 2021

Biden signals he's flexible on immigration overhaulPresident Joe Biden speaks during a CNN town hall event at The Pabst Theater in Milwaukee on Tuesday, Feb. 16, 2021. After two decades of failure, advocates for the broadest possible overhaul of the nation’s immigration laws are considering a new strategy: pressing for piecemeal legislation; Image: Doug Mills/The New York Times

WASHINGTON — President Joe Biden has said repeatedly that he wants to create a path to citizenship for all of the 11 million immigrants living in the United States illegally.

But even as he prepares to push hard for the broadest possible overhaul of the nation’s immigration laws, he and his aides have started to signal openness to more targeted approaches that could win citizenship for smaller, discrete groups of immigrants living in the United States without legal permission. At a CNN town hall Tuesday, he said such efforts would be acceptable “in the meantime.”

In a private telephone call with activists Wednesday, top immigration aides to Biden said they supported what they called a “multiple trains” strategy, which could target citizenship for “Dreamers,” the young immigrants brought into the country illegally as children; farmworkers who have toiled for years in U.S. fields; and others.

Smaller bills could move forward as the president tries to build support for the broader legislation, which is scheduled to be introduced Thursday, according to two people who were on the call.

If he chooses to move step by step, Biden appears unlikely to anger the most powerful pro-immigration groups, which are embracing a more pragmatic strategy after spectacular defeats under Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama.

For more than two decades, activists have tried and failed to secure passage of a broad overhaul of the nation’s immigration laws that would create a path to citizenship for most immigrants living in the United States without legal permission, a faster path for Dreamers, expanded visa access for highly skilled workers and a new program for seasonal agricultural laborers.

They are betting that Biden will struggle even more than his predecessors did to win support from a Republican Party that became more anti-immigrant during the Trump administration.

While the activists are willing to let Biden try for a bipartisan deal this year, they have warned that they will not wait forever.

“We want 11 million people legalized. That is our North Star,” said Frank Sharry, executive director of America’s Voice and a veteran of immigration wars in the nation’s capital for more than 30 years. “But we can’t come home empty-handed. We’re not going to adopt an all-or-nothing approach. We have to achieve a breakthrough.”

For those like Sharry, that is a major shift, and it could herald fierce debates over whether Democrats should use parliamentary tactics in the Senate to ram through individual immigration measures without any Republican support.

The activists are mobilizing on behalf of separate bills that would legalize Dreamers, farmworkers, immigrants granted temporary status after fleeing war and natural disasters, and “essential workers” living in the United States illegally who have been on the front lines of the coronavirus pandemic.

Publicly, the White House is insisting that Congress should pass the president’s broad immigration overhaul. Jen Psaki, White House press secretary, said this week that Biden was pushing for comprehensive changes because “they all need to be addressed — that’s why he proposed them together.”

And the chief backers of Biden’s legislation in Congress — Sen. Bob Menendez of New Jersey and Rep. Linda Sanchez of California — say abandoning the broader effort before it has even begun would be a mistake. Menendez and Sanchez are expected to reveal details about the president’s legislation Thursday morning after it is introduced in the House.

A Democratic aide familiar with the legislation said if immigration activists ask for only “half a loaf,” they should not be surprised when they end up going home with just a single slice of bread.

How to successfully revamp the nation’s immigration system has for decades eluded policymakers in Washington. The last time a major immigration bill was signed into law was in 1990, when President George Bush expanded legal immigration into the United States, before an explosion of illegal crossings at the southwestern border in the following 20 years.

The surge in illegal border crossings prompted demands for increased enforcement from conservatives even as backlogs in legal immigration created a growing crisis for businesses looking for workers and for families seeking refuge in the United States from violence and disasters at home.

For nearly three decades, those in favor of immigration have argued for a single, comprehensive bill with elements that could unite Democrats and Republicans, labor unions and big businesses, security-minded conservatives and liberal immigration supporters.

But none of those efforts succeeded. Despite support from Bush, the Senate and House failed to reach a compromise in 2006, and legislation in 2007 was defeated in the Senate. In 2013, Obama secured bipartisan Senate passage of an immigration overhaul, 68-32, only to see it ignored by the Republican-controlled House. Over the past four years, some of the conservative side of the equation — border security — was secured by President Donald Trump in the form of tough restrictions on asylum-seekers and partial construction of Trump’s border wall.

Biden won the presidency in part by pledging that he would bring back bipartisanship and saying that his long-standing relationships in the Senate would help him bridge the partisan divides that have grown deeper in recent years. Psaki said the president has outlined “the tenets of what we think the proposal should look like” in the hopes of addressing the root causes of immigration problems.

But immigration advocates say the history of failure is driving a change in strategy this year.

“You’re talking about a fight that we’ve had for over three decades at this point,” said Lorella Praeli, president of Community Change Action. “I’m not interested in a dance. I’m committed to seeing this through and delivering on concrete changes.”

Praeli and other proponents praised Biden, Menendez and Sanchez for their broader bill. But they also called on the president to promise that he would also use a budgetary tool known as reconciliation to enact smaller components of the legislation even as he pushes ahead with the larger effort.

Under Senate rules, legislation that significantly affects the nation’s budget can be passed with only a majority vote, avoiding filibuster rules that require the support of 60 senators. With the current 50-50 Senate, that would give Democrats the ability to pass reconciliation bills without Republican support and with Vice President Kamala Harris casting the tiebreaking vote — if they can stay united.

Immigration proponents say some more targeted efforts to legalize some immigrants living in the United State illegally would pass muster under the sometimes baffling rules of reconciliation, which are supposed to bar pure policy measures from bills that are supposed to deal with government taxation and spending. Because newly legalized residents would affect tax revenue and government benefits, the groups say immigration legislation could be tailored as budget measures.

©2019 New York Times News Service

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