With GOP Senators Skeptical Of Immigration Reform, Piecemeal Approach Gains Steam at White House

With Republican senators a clear and present obstacle for the Biden administration on passing comprehensive immigration reform, the White House and stakeholders have signaled their openness to a piecemeal approach that breaks up the components of the larger bill into possibly more palatable, and popular, segments.

While Democrats and activists have lauded President Joe Biden's proposal as a progressive salvo in the latest chapter of the decades-long debate over overhauling the country's immigration system, skeptical Republican senators have the power to advance the bill or stop it in its tracks.

"The immigration bill proposed by the Biden Administration includes several provisions that I have long advocated for, such as establishing a path to citizenship for Dreamers who were brought to the U.S. as children and who know no other country as their home, deploying new technology to prevent illegal border crossings, and improving the employment verification process," Maine Senator Susan Collins told Newsweek. The Republican, long considered a moderate voice in the upper chamber, is the kind of senator the White House must get to support their bill with the Senate split 50-50.

But Collins continued that "the proposal falls short in several areas," such as failing to increase the cap on the number of H-2B visas that support Maine jobs and businesses. She added that Biden's plan should serve as a framework that can bring both sides together to improve the immigration system.

Other Republican senators including Sens. Mitt Romney, Tim Scott, Ben Sasse, Marco Rubio, Pat Toomey, Rob Portman, John Cornyn, and Dan Sullivan did not respond or declined to comment on their thoughts about the administration's policy proposals.

While Biden has made the pillars of his approach clear, from a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants, to "smart" border security, some Republicans say they still need more.

"First things first, we need to see legislative text," said one senior Senate aide, who was not authorized to speak publicly, for a Republican.

"It will be a heavy lift, even more in such a divided Senate," said a Senate aide for another Republican senator, who also requested to speak anonymously. "It's not going to be easy for the Democrats to push this through."

Some immigration advocacy groups are also engaging a small number of Democrats on immigration, including West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin and Arizona Senators Kyrsten Sinema and Mark Kelly. While Manchin and Sinema did not respond to requests for comment, a spokesperson for Kelly said his focus is on a "bipartisan approach to get immigration legislation done."

The clear skepticism to robust immigration legislation has furthered conversations that the White House would be open to such a piecemeal approach, which two sources close to the White House confirmed, following signaling to immigration groups in communication with the Biden administration.

The Biden administration did not respond to a request for comment.

One of the White House sources said they know Congress is the one that passes legislation, not Biden, but said if Congress is able to put together a package with a path to citizenship for essential workers, Dreamers, temporary protected status holders, and agricultural workers "that's something the White House would give a good look at." The source was not authorized to speak publicly on the administration's plans.

"After four years of Trump, Democrats must use all legislative tools available to get to the ultimate goal of a humane, fair, and functional immigration system," said Alida Garcia, vice president of advocacy for FWD.us, an immigration group founded by Mark Zuckerberg, that engages both parties on the issue. "That includes immediately moving the bipartisan Dream & Promise Act & the Farm Workforce Modernization Act to the floor and putting essential workers on a roadmap to citizenship as a part of a COVID recovery package," Garcia told Newsweek.

Activists are open to the piecemeal approach because they see it as "a both and" approach that is only fair after what immigrant communities endured during the Trump era.

Lorella Praeli, the president of progressive group Community Change, is a longtime immigration leader who used to tussle with the Obama administration on policy. Calling a piecemeal approach a "down payment on immigration, she said, "As we commit to leave no one behind it's absolutely critical that we take advantage of every opportunity to legislate and deliver for people."

What seems most achievable at the moment, Praeli said, is using reconciliation levers in Congress to legalize essential workers as part of COVID relief packages, and echoed Garcia's call for the Dream Act and Farm Workforce Modernization Act, the latter of which would create a visa for farmworkers, with both already passing in the House in 2019 with Republican support.

Sen. Lindsey Graham, who like Rubio, was once part of the 2013 Gang of eight senators who crafted broad immigration legislation, before recently pouring water on Biden's comprehensive approach, said last week that he was open to an approach with a more limited scope, but one that includes permanently codifying the Obama-era DACA program that would give legalization to Dreamers.

"I think probably the space in a 50-50 Senate would be some kind of DACA deal," Graham said. "Comprehensive immigration is going to be a tough sell given this environment, but doing DACA, I think, is possible."

The LIBRE Initiative, a conservative group that advocates on issues of importance for Latinos to members of Congress, said they see Biden's legislation as an opportunity around immigration reform to start a conversation, which will be guided by members. But while they don't have a preference for a piecemeal approach, they too believe goodwill on immigration has to begin somewhere.

"The one thing we all agree on is DACA," said Daniel Garza, the group's executive director. "If we can't get passed that I don't know how you secure the border, modernize the visa system, or eventually get to the 11 million immigrants."

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President Joe Biden speaks about climate change issues in the State Dining Room of the White House on January 27, 2021 in Washington, DC. President Biden signed several executive orders related to the climate change crisis on Wednesday, including one directing a pause on new oil and natural gas leases on public lands. (Photo by Anna Moneymaker-Pool/Getty Images) Anna Moneymaker-Pool/Getty