Democrats Consider Piecemeal Approach to Immigration Reform

February 19, 2021

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 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 clear 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 U.S. 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 only a slender majority in Congress.

Even before the new bill was unveiled, Democrats were reining in expectations for their final result. Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Dick Durbin has said that 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, 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, given 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."


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