Biden’s Immigration Plan Is Ambitious But Not Impossible

Just when Republican support for pro-immigration legislation has dropped to its lowest level in two decades, President Joe Biden has put forward reforms far more ambitious than those proposed by Barack Obama. So if Obama’s plans went down in flames, Biden’s will too, right, especially given the hair-thin majority the Democrats have in the Senate?

Maybe. Maybe not.

Biden has political leverage that Obama whittled away. If the new president plays his cards right, he may well be able to get significant portions of his proposals through.

Biden has already used his executive authority to reverse many of Donald Trump’s harsh anti-immigration orders. He has ended the so-called Muslim ban and reinstated DACA, the program that shielded Dreamers (those who have grown up in America after they were brought here without proper authorization as minors) from deportation. He has also halted construction on Trump’s border wall and scrapped the Remain in Mexico policy that warehoused Central American asylum seekers in abysmal living conditions in Mexican camps. He has not just reinstated but expanded the refugee program after Trump all but gutted it.

All of this was expected. What wasn’t was Biden’s proposed legislation that pushes every conservative hot button and then some. For example:

  • Conservatives loathe the diversity visa program, which hands 55,000 green cards every year on a lottery basis to underrepresented nationalities to diversify the immigrant population. Biden would expand the program to 80,000.
  • Conservatives consider amnesty or citizenship for unauthorized immigrants dirty words. Biden recommends green cards for farmworkers, Temporary Protected Status (TPS) holders and for Dreamers, immediately followed by citizenship in three years. For the rest of the 11 million unauthorized migrants here before Jan. 1, 2021, he proposes immediate work authorization and an eight-year path to citizenship.
  • Conservatives backed the end of the family-reunification program during the Trump era, calling it chain migration. Biden proposes to raise the per-country green card limit for close foreign relatives of American citizens.
  • Conservatives, under Trump, started backing away from support of employer-based immigration for high-skilled workers. Biden would remove the per-country green card ceiling for this category, too.

As if that is not enough, Biden offers conservatives little in the way of enforcement measures apart from upping an unspecified amount for more sophisticated screening technology at ports of entry. There is no mention of funding for a border wall or increased border patrols. To the contrary, the president proposes spending more money on accountability action against abusive Department of Homeland Security agents.

All of this is in complete contrast to the 2013 Obama-era Gang of Eight bill that four Republicans and four Democrats hammered out. That bill not only imposed penalties on the undocumented but made the amnesty program contingent on first securing the border. It sailed through the Senate, securing 14 Republican votes, but was torpedoed in the House when then Speaker John Boehner refused even to put it up for a vote.

The situation is the reverse this time. Democrats control the House so the Biden bill should pass without too much difficulty, even with their reduced majority. But obtaining the 10 GOP votes in the Senate to avoid a Republican filibuster will be an uphill battle.

Two of the Republican senators who sponsored the Gang of Eight bill have backtracked. Florida’s Marco Rubio has declared the bill a “nonstarter” and condemned its “blanket amnesty.” Ditto for South Carolina’s Lindsey Graham, who has warned that there won’t be enough votes in the Senate to pass anything beyond a bill helping the Dreamers. (As for the other two Republican supporters, John McCain is dead, and his Arizona colleague, Jeff Flake, was driven out of the party by Trump.)

All of this has prompted Democratic Senator Dick Durbin of Illinois to warn Biden not to “overplay his hand.”

But Biden is not necessarily courting failure.

For starters, in contrast to Obama who got to immigration reform only in his second term after expending his political capital on Obamacare, Biden has made it his top 100-day priority. In the wake of Trump’s draconian policies, most of Biden’s immigration-related executive actions enjoy strong public support, Gallup’s Frank Newport has pointed out. For the first time since the polling outfit started asking the question in 1965, more Americans believe that the levels of immigration should be increased rather than decreased. Around 77% said that immigration is a good thing for the country today, the highest percentage ever.

Biden no doubt understands that favorable polling numbers do not translate into votes for comprehensive reform in Congress. But Liz Mair, a pro-immigration Republican operative, points out that Biden is a Senate veteran who understands how the legislative sausage is made.

“Obama wanted one large sexy bill that he could take credit for,” Mair said. Biden, on the other hand, might be content with passing parts of the bill that have bipartisan support in a piecemeal fashion while splitting other parts and appending them to must-pass legislation.

In the piecemeal camp would be a Dreamer bill. And in the split-and-append camp might be protections for the five million unauthorized workers in essential industries that could be added to the second Covid-19 recovery package.

All of this would take care of a pretty big chunk of the undocumented population.

As for the remaining goals, the Biden bill is an opening bid that leaves room for negotiation with Republicans precisely because it gives them so little upfront.

True, Biden does not have a lot of wiggle room with his side. After four years of Trump, progressives are in no mood for concessions and will hold Biden’s feet to the fire if he yields on an enforcement-first approach that Republicans favor, something that Obama did in a vain effort to buy their support.

Nor will progressives stand for scrapping the diversity visa program or giving up on legalizing the undocumented population or slashing family-based legal immigration. However, they will likely go along with a mandatory E-verify program that would require employers to check the work status of new hires against a federal database, and reluctantly accept more money for ramped-up border patrolling.

The trickiest issue will be amnesty for the undocumented residents not covered by the Dreamer or other bills. Biden could try to persuade his side to consider a compromise: giving the undocumented green cards immediately but doubling the time for citizenship from eight to 16 years. It’s a deal that would be harder for Republicans to reject since it was endorsed by none other than Rush Limbaugh, the late conservative talk show host most responsible for turning “amnesty” into a dirty word. Limbaugh indicated three years ago he could live with it because it would mean denying Democrats an immediate influx of new voters.

There would be another political upside of this strategy for Democrats: Deporting green-card holders, once rare, became much more commonplace during the Trump years. So the fear that a Republican president would restore that practice might keep Latinos turning out for Democrats.

If all else fails, Biden could put the option of scrapping the filibuster on the table to prod Republicans. The vast majority of Democratic senators want to get rid of the rule since it is the only impediment right now to enacting a sweeping Democratic agenda. They’ve been thwarted by a few of their more moderate colleagues.

But if Republicans play obstructionist on immigration despite major concessions from Biden, the “blue dog” Democrats will be under enormous pressure to go along. Persuading them would be an uphill battle, but just a credible possibility that they would succumb might prod Republicans to negotiate in good faith.

Biden has presented an ambitious immigration bill because the political cost of pushing something lame is too great. Writing off his plans would be a mistake.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Shikha Dalmia, a Washingon-based writer, was previously a member of the Detroit News editorial board and senior analyst at Reason Foundation.

©2021 Bloomberg L.P.

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