Biden’s immigration bill faces difficult path in Senate

Some Republicans already are calling reported plan ‘mass amnesty’

Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, likely to be ranking member on the  Senate Judiciary Committee, called Biden's immigration bill "far more radical" than past efforts. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, likely to be ranking member on the Senate Judiciary Committee, called Biden's immigration bill "far more radical" than past efforts. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Posted January 19, 2021 at 4:52pm

President-elect Joe Biden’s plan to propose a sweeping immigration bill on his first day in office faces significant Republican opposition over a key issue: the path to citizenship for those without legal status. 

Incoming White House Chief of Staff Ron Klain said in interviews over the weekend that the administration plans to “restore humanity to our immigration system” through comprehensive legislation and a series of executive actions on Day One.

Biden’s nominee for Homeland Security secretary, Alejandro Mayorkas, confirmed the plan during his confirmation hearing Tuesday. If confirmed, he told members of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, he would work “with Congress in passing legislation to fix our broken immigration system.”

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Both Biden and, more recently, Vice President-elect Kamala Harris have said their immigration bill would provide a pathway to citizenship for millions of immigrants who lack legal status in the country.

Last week, Harris revealed that plan includes granting green cards to immigrants protected by Temporary Protected Status and the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals programs, granting those individuals automatic permanent U.S. residency. The bill also would cut the wait time to obtain citizenship from the current 13 years to eight.

“We believe that it’s the smarter and more humane way of approaching immigration,” Harris said in an interview with Univision about the plan.

But neither Biden nor Harris nor anyone in the transition team has talked about what those immigrants specifically would need to do to ultimately receive citizenship.

Sen. Charles E. Grassley, the Iowa Republican poised to become ranking member of the Judiciary Committee —which has jurisdiction over immigration — on Tuesday blasted Biden’s proposal as “mass amnesty” and called it "far more radical" that past congressional efforts that have failed.

“I’ve previously supported immigration proposals that would provide certainty for DACA-eligible individuals and lead to greater border security and more robust enforcement of our immigration laws. But a mass amnesty with no safeguards and no strings attached is a nonstarter. As we’ve seen before, that approach only encourages further violations of our immigration laws,” he said in a statement.

Tough Senate path

Though Democrats will control the House and, more narrowly, the Senate following Biden’s inauguration, they’ll likely need Republican support to enact any bill.

Sen. Charles E. Schumer of New York, who will become majority leader once two new Georgia Democrats are sworn in and Harris is inaugurated, said in a floor speech Tuesday that immigration legislation would be “a very high priority” once Democrats take control.

“I’ve always felt that comprehensive immigration reform with a path to citizenship is one of the most important things a Democratic Congress can do,” Schumer said.

If Democrats can’t find enough Republican support to pass legislation through regular order, they could still perhaps pass it through the budget reconciliation process. But that process would limit how comprehensive the bill could be since reconciliation is primarily intended to balance revenue and spending.

But the rules of budget reconciliation would likely limit Biden's ability to pass immigration legislation on a simple majority vote. That means Senate Democrats will have to either find a handful of Republicans to support their proposals, or find the issue pressing enough to jettison the legislative filibuster.

A series of chairmanship shuffles will likely put Sen. Richard J. Durbin, D-Ill., as the leader of the Judiciary Committee in coming days. Durbin, the Democratic whip, has been the primary sponsor behind a series of proposals to provide so-called Dreamers — undocumented immigrants brought to the country as children — a path to citizenship. 

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Durbin has a history of working across the aisle in the committee, including on the 2018 criminal justice measure that passed the chamber under Grassley’s leadership.

But Durbin’s efforts on immigration legislation have demonstrated that immigration proposals frequently deadlock over the issue of how to gain citizenship — a roadblock that hasn’t vanished with Biden’s election. 

Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Mo., an ally of President Donald Trump who backed discredited allegations of election fraud following Biden’s victory, described reports of Biden’s immigration plan as “mass amnesty” during the Mayorkas hearing Tuesday. Hawley sits on both the Homeland Security and Judiciary committees.

Through a spokesperson, Durbin pledged to push for a bipartisan bill, with possibly less than some immigration advocates had hoped for.

"Bipartisan support is essential to victory in a 50-50 Senate, and Senator Durbin is working hard to advance reforms like the Dream Act, which is supported by the vast majority of Americans, including most Republicans," the spokesperson said in a statement.

Jorge Loweree, policy director for the American Immigration Council, called the path to citizenship “the operative question” when discussing any immigration proposal. Loweree, who favors a broader route to citizenship, said any bill that “creates a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants, whatever the number, it is still going to be attacked by the other side as amnesty.”

The most recent major push for a new immigration law, in 2018, fell apart amid disputes between Trump, Senate Republicans and Democrats over asylum, a border wall, citizenship for DACA recipients and sanctuary cities. Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., a Trump ally and major player in that effort, said last year he was open to a path to citizenship for Dreamers.

But the Senate has lost a handful of Republicans who backed that bipartisan bill: Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, Jeff Flake of Arizona, Cory Gardner of Colorado and Johnny Isakson of Georgia. Three of those seats are now held by Democrats.

The last effort before that, known as the “Gang of Eight” proposal in 2013, has only two Republican members left: Graham and Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla. That effort actually passed the Senate on a 68-32 vote before dying in a Republican-controlled House.

Lorella Praeli, co-president of the advocacy group Community Change, said on a call with reporters Tuesday that Biden has a “moral mandate” to break sharply from Trump’s immigration policies and rhetoric.

“In this moment … we have a window of opportunity to secure significant reforms on immigration,” Praeli said, like a path to citizenship that extends beyond Dreamers to millions of undocumented immigrants across the country.

Camila DeChalus contributed to this report.