The two bills the House passed last week were just the beginning of Democrats’ push to overhaul the immigration system, but political hurdles have slowed their next step in the effort before it even hits the uphill climb in the Senate.
House Democrats are gearing up to move a comprehensive measure championed by President Joe Biden, who proposed a path to citizenship for the roughly 11 million undocumented immigrants in the country. The bill was introduced last month by Rep. Linda Sánchez (D-Calif.) and has support from both wings of the party.
It’s not on a fast track to the floor, however, as moderate members are seeking changes to the bill before signing on. Every Democratic vote is critical thanks to the party’s slim majority, in which even a few dissenting members could sink it.
Rep. Salud Carbajal (D-Calif.), a co-chair of the centrist New Democrat Coalition’s task force on immigration, said there was an “overwhelming commitment” from the wider caucus to move a comprehensive bill, but it would require more hearings and changes before it was ready for floor action.
“What we’re hearing is a number of things—I will characterize them as enhancements—that individuals are hoping can take place as this larger bill gets marked up,” Carbajal said in an interview.
Other members had a more blunt assessment about the needed changes, including one Democratic lawmaker who asked to speak anonymously to be candid about the bill.
“There are a lot of concerns right now,” the lawmaker said. “They know they don’t have the votes, which is why they’re giving more time.”
Senators from both parties are pessimistic about any immigration bill’s chances of overcoming a 60-vote filibuster, particularly as the administration deals with a surge of migrants from Central America coming across the U.S. border.
Even if the House passes a comprehensive immigration bill, it stands little chance in the Senate where it would need support from 10 Republican senators. The prospects are so bleak that Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), a champion of updating the immigration system, said he didn’t see a way it could pass in the Senate.
Still, there’s political pressure to ensure broader immigration legislation at least gets through the House, even if it can’t move forward. Lorella Praeli, president of Community Change Action, said passing a bill in the House will make a difference on the campaign trail for lawmakers who want to show voters they care about immigration issues.
“They are able to point to what they are passing, not just what they are introducing,” she said. “There’s a big difference in between those two things.”
Discussions are underway behind the scenes, and the bill is expected to get a boost now that two smaller immigration bills passed the chamber with bipartisan support. One (H.R. 6) would allow those brought into the country unlawfully as young children to obtain citizenship. The other (H.R. 1603) would allow agricultural workers to qualify for temporary or permanent legal status.
Rep. Karen Bass (D-Calif.), one of a small team of lawmakers whipping votes on the larger immigration measure, said more members are committing each week to supporting the legislation.
“People have a lot of different issues, and so we are trying to deal with those,” she said.
Most of the requests are coming from individual members, rather than a coalition. They include:
- Raising the annual cap on H-1B work visas for specialty occupation workers, which the Biden proposal doesn’t change and could cause friction with organized labor groups.
- Requiring employers to use E-Verify, the online verification system, to check if employees are legally authorized to work in the country.
- Incorporating legislation (H.R. 1603) addressing temporary and permanent status for agriculture workers, one of the two bills that passed the House last week.
- Making it easier for federally recognized tribal members to cross the U.S.-Canada border, similar to legislation Rep. Derek Kilmer (D-Wash.) proposed in 2019.
- Including more specific provisions on border security.
- Clarifying a provision that could allow individuals with criminal records who were deported over the last four years to apply for a waiver to return to the U.S. Lawmakers want to ensure those convicted of violent crimes wouldn’t be eligible under the measure.
House Judiciary Chair Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.) said his panel could mark up the legislation in April, making any needed changes to shore up support. Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) said lawmakers would be working on the bill in the next few months and was hopeful it would eventually pass.
“We’ve promised to our base that we were for comprehensive immigration reform,” Hoyer told reporters. “It is my expectation that we will bring a comprehensive bill to the floor.”
The White House confirmed it’s open to changes to Biden’s initial proposal. An administration official told reporters they’re willing to talk to anyone who wanted to have a serious conversation.
While Biden’s proposal offered a broader vision for immigration, the bills that passed last week are a good start toward fixing a broken system, Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas told House lawmakers during a hearing last week.
“They strike at some of the core needs, the core fixes that the immigration system requires to move us forward in a better way,” Mayorkas said.
To contact the reporters on this story: Emily Wilkins in Washington at firstname.lastname@example.org; Genevieve Douglas in Washington at email@example.com; Shaun Courtney in Washington at firstname.lastname@example.org