WASHINGTON — Congressional Democrats introduced a comprehensive bill to remake the U.S. immigration system with the endorsement of President Joe Biden, wading into a politically thorny issue that has bedeviled the last three administrations.
Named the U.S. Citizenship Act of 2021, the bill was unveiled on Thursday by Sen. Bob Menendez, D-N.J., and Rep. Linda Sánchez, D-Calif., and includes an eight-year pathway to citizenship for people in the country unlawfully who arrived by Jan. 1 of this year. It would lift hurdles for workers to legally immigrate to the U.S., add resources for border screening and replace the word "alien" with "noncitizen" in law.
"We have an economic and moral imperative to pass big, bold and inclusive immigration reform," Menendez told reporters in a virtual press conference, describing the measure as an attempt to modernize the system and move beyond former President Donald Trump's "hateful horror show."
Menendez said Democrats have failed on this issue in the past because "time and time again, we have compromised too much and capitulated too quickly to fringe voices" who deny the humanity of immigrants and instead listen to white nationalists.
The bill closely represents the proposal that Biden sketched out on the first day of his presidency in an attempt to make good on a promise to voters during his campaign.
The issue has been politically tricky for Biden as some immigration activists hold him partly responsible for the Obama administration's early focus on crackdowns and delays on pursuing an overhaul. Biden is taking the opposite approach now, opening his presidency by embracing a progressive vision.
But while the ideas have been praised by progressives and immigration advocates, the legislation faces long odds in Congress, where Democrats have paper-thin majorities and lack the minimum of 10 Republican votes to defeat a Senate filibuster.
Instead of rushing to the negotiating table, Republicans are mobilizing to blast the proposal as "amnesty," and it's not clear the Biden administration has a strategy to get the bill to his desk.
Pro-immigration activists are wondering how much political capital Biden will spend on the issue.
"Just because this bill is being introduced doesn’t mean there is actually a plan to pass it," said Evan Weber, the policy director of the progressive Sunrise Movement, one of several advocacy groups that the White House consulted with before the rollout. "So that’s one of the things we’re going to be looking for from the White House and Democratic leaders: What is the strategy?"
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said Thursday that some Democrats want to break up the immigration bill and pursue a piecemeal approach, while others want to use the budget reconciliation process to bypass the Senate's 60-vote threshold.
"How it happens through the legislative process remains to be seen," she said. "But it is a priority."
On a call with reporters Wednesday evening Biden administration officials wouldn't entertain questions about whether the president might reconsider abolishing the Senate's 60-vote threshold or whether he'd support using reconciliation to avoid a filibuster.
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"It's just too early to speculate about it now," said one Biden administration official. "We want to first defer to our sponsors of this bill about what's possible and look to leadership on the Hill about how they want to move immigration."
That's easier said than done.
Former President Donald Trump stirred up anti-immigration sentiments that linger, despite his defeat. The GOP is less inclined to cut a deal on the issue than in 2013, when many party elites believed it was necessary to survive demographic doom. That year, a bill passed the Democratic-led Senate but was never considered in the Republican-controlled House.
And it's not clear how interested moderate Democrats like West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin and Arizona Sens. Kyrsten Sinema and Mark Kelly will be in fighting for a contentious immigration package.
The Biden-Democratic proposal is an opening negotiating bid that is considerably more progressive than the 2013 legislation. It includes a shorter path to citizenship than the 13 years required by the prior bill and lacks the extensive border security measures that won some GOP votes.
Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, a Republican who has been at the center of previous bipartisan immigration bill, said he has doubts a broader deal is possible, but kept open the possibility of a small one that includes legalizing so-called Dreamers in exchange for more enforcement measures.
"The more people you legalize, the more things will be required to be given, so we'll see. It starts a conversation," he told NBC News. "You just can't legalize one group without addressing the underlying broken immigration system. You just incentivize more. So, a smaller deal may be possible."