Rafael Bernal, The Hill, December 30, 2023
The first Congress of the Biden era is ending with a significant list of legislative accomplishments under its belt, but Democrats will once again relinquish a House majority without delivering on immigration reform.
Two major immigration bills cleared the Democratic-led House in March of 2021, but the political moment to peel off the necessary ten Senate Republicans to enact a law never came.
The Dream and Promise Act would have opened legal pathways — and ultimately citizenship — for about two million recipients of the Temporary Protected Status (TPS) program and Dreamers, undocumented immigrants who arrived in the country as minors.
The Farm Workforce Modernization Act (FWMA), would have overhauled the migrant labor market, putting in place a broad deal to address deficiencies in the agricultural visa system, while implementing harsher controls to avoid hiring undocumented workers and opening a pathway to citizenship for potentially millions of agricultural laborers.
The Dream and Promise Act received unanimous Democratic support and nine Republican votes, while the FWMA passed the House with only one Democrat voting “no” and 30 Republicans voting in favor of it.
But neither the bipartisanship nor favorable public polling bolstered the bills’ momentum, and neither passed the Senate.
In the fall, President Biden attempted to push through Congress the Build Back Better Act, a $3.5 trillion economic and social package.
The bill needed no Republican support because it was moved through reconciliation, leaving Democrats to fight among themselves and ultimately reducing the size of the proposal to $1.7 trillion.
Three House Democrats, Reps. Lou Correa (Calif.), Jesús García (Ill.) and Adriano Espaillat (N.Y.), said they would not vote for the package unless it included Dreamer protections, but they were ultimately forced to scale back their demands after moderate Democrats staged a backroom campaign to minimize the bill’s immigration proposals.
Many moderates privately lobbied leadership to scale down the immigration side of the signature Democratic bill, fearing that Republicans would successfully campaign on the issue.
Ultimately, even a scaled-down version of the immigration provisions was struck down by the Senate parliamentarian, who ruled work permits were incompatible with the reconciliation process.
Hopes that immigration measures might move forward in a lame-duck session of Congress were lifted after Republicans underperformed expectations despite their border-centric pitch to voters.
Democrats threw more meat on the flame with a bill that would allow undocumented immigrants with years in the country and no criminal record to apply to regularize their papers.
Under the rolling registry bill, introduced in the House by Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.), undocumented immigrants would be able to apply for permanent residency after seven years in the country.
The problem with all of the proposals was that none of them clearly had backing from Senate Republicans — a necessity in the evenly-divided upper chamber.
Sens. Kyrsten Sinema – at the time an Arizona Democrat, now an independent – and Thom Tillis (R-N.C.) held negotiations to exchange Dreamer protections for enhanced immigration and border enforcement, as well as a streamlined asylum process.
That deal raised hopes temporarily, but was quickly scrapped amid the year-end rush.
Meanwhile, immigrant farm workforce negotiations between Sens. Mike Crapo (R-Idaho) and Michael Bennet (D-Colo.), which had been going on for more than a year, seemed to hit a stride before ultimately dying down.
The Crapo-Bennet negotiations, which had begun as a joint effort to make the House-passed FWMA palatable to more Republicans, ultimately ran into roadblocks as the American Farm Bureau Federation pushed Crapo in one direction and the United Farm Workers union pushed Bennet in another.