Democrats start gauging support for immigration overhaul

White House-backed bill could be on House floor within two weeks

House Majority Whip James Clyburn, D-S.C., on his way to the House chamber last month.  (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
House Majority Whip James Clyburn, D-S.C., on his way to the House chamber last month. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Posted February 24, 2021 at 4:43pm

House Majority Whip James E. Clyburn started surveying chamber Democrats on Wednesday to discern support for the recent White House-backed comprehensive immigration bill that would create a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants.

Clyburn, D-S.C., told CQ Roll Call that he hopes to hear back from lawmakers “as quickly as possible” on the immigration bill unveiled by congressional Democrats last week.

At a press conference Wednesday, Democratic Caucus Vice Chair Pete Aguilar, D-Calif., said that the caucus is beginning to “educate our colleagues and to talk with them about the importance of this piece of legislation.”

He told CQ Roll Call following the press conference that Congressional Hispanic Caucus Chair Raul Ruiz, D-Calif., and Rep. Linda T. Sanchez, D-Calif., the lead bill sponsor, will make presentations to other groups this week and next. 

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“So we'll have a better gauge at that point,” Aguilar said. 

Clyburn’s whip notice comes as CHC members push for fast movement on immigration legislation before April 1, according to Aguilar. 

"We just want to make something happen. We just want to make sure that we provide relief and that we recognize that this system is broken and make progress toward that. So we anticipate doing that by April 1,” Aguilar said. 

“That would be our guidance, so that would be our suggestion to leadership and I think that that's something leadership, you know, acknowledges and knows and also is committed to.” 

Clyburn called that timing “possible” but admitted: “I don’t know how probable.”

In a statement to CQ Roll Call, Sanchez said that she, the CHC, and a group she called “The Closers” — six other House Democrats spearheading the bill — are focused “on educating members from all corners of the caucus” about the measure and “on building a consensus to deliver the greatest amount of relief to the broadest amount of people as possible.”

“Conversations have been very productive so far, and I look forward to continuing them in the next few weeks,” she said.

Sen. Bob Menendez, D-N.J., lead sponsor of the Senate version, told CQ Roll Call that the Democrats are still gathering sponsors and working to educate lawmakers about the bill in the Senate.

“We’re accumulating that, waiting to see. We believe that the House movement gives us a traction that’s necessary here. So, we’re not whipping people, but we are educating people,” he said.

A spokesperson for the CHC didn’t immediately return a request Wednesday for comment. 

[Hill Democrats unveil immigration bill backed by White House]

Congressional Democrats have signaled willingness to pass immigration changes through piecemeal legislation, rather than through one large bill, if necessary. 

House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer told reporters on a press call Wednesday that Democrats have not yet decided their floor strategy for moving immigration legislation, "but it's something we want to pass in the near future." 

Immigration legislation may be brought to the House floor the week of March 8, Hoyer said. 

He pointed to individual bills that have gained traction in Congress in the past, including a measure to provide protections for undocumented immigrants brought to the U.S. as children, often referred to as as Dreamers, and legislation that would allow undocumented farmworkers to apply for permanent status and ramp up E-Verify requirements. 

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Both bills passed the House in 2019 but stalled in the then-Republican-controlled Senate. Senate Judiciary Chairman Richard J. Durbin, D-Ill., and Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., re-introduced a bipartisan version of the legislation protecting Dreamers earlier this month. 

"We're all for the immigration reform bill," Hoyer said of President Joe Biden's comprehensive proposal, dubbed the U.S. Citizenship Act. "Both advocates and members here want to make sure that we have that bill in a shape it can pass. We want to make law, not messages."

Aguilar said at Wednesday’s press conference that if the farmworker and Dreamer bills were brought to the floor again, he would imagine “a similar result.”

“But the question before us is if we are ready to vote for, and advocate for, the U.S. Citizenship Act, which would transform the system,” he said, referring to Clyburn’s whip question. 

Democratic Caucus Chair Hakeem Jeffries, D-N.Y., added that Sanchez gave an initial presentation on the comprehensive bill during last week’s caucus meeting, and that House Democrats “are at the very early stages of making decisions.” 

Last week while introducing the bill, Menendez told reporters that while the focus is on the entire bill, it would also be “great” if individual pieces of it could pass. 

Sanchez similarly characterized the comprehensive bill as a “starting point.”

White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki has also indicated that Biden would be amenable to breaking up the bill. Referencing his decades spent in the Senate, Psaki told reporters last week that Biden is “very familiar with the fact that a bill proposed does typically not look like the final bill signed.”

“And at this point, you know, he's just looking forward to having a bill to sign at his desk,” she said on Feb. 18.

Jennifer Shutt contributed to this report.