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Immigration Advocates Weigh the Potential of Piecemeal Policies

March 4, 2021 by Kate Michael
Advocates for immigrants with Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, rally in front of the U.S. Supreme Court June 15, 2020 in Washington, DC. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images/TNS)

WASHINGTON — Immigration, an often controversial political topic, has played an important role in American history and continues to shape the nation today. While the United States actually has one of the most open immigration policies in the world, accepting more immigrants and asylum-seekers than any other nation, advocates still seek immigration reform that corrects the difficulties of the immigration system and responds to future challenges. 

President Biden unveiled an immigration bill on his first day in office and has already signed close to a dozen executive orders on the topic. But despite Democratic majorities in the House and Senate, Congress remains closely divided on the issue, leaving many to wonder if comprehensive immigration reform can happen.

The non-profit Bipartisan Policy Center offered that, while comprehensive immigration reform sounds good in theory, putting forward a massive package of legislation is a practice that hasn’t succeeded. Instead, BPC believes that immigration reform would be better served by tackling the concept piecemeal. The think tank convened a panel of advocates and policy experts to discuss three possible areas of immigration reform that may be easier to pass. 

“We need to demonstrate that we can do something legislative on immigration… to show the art of the possible… so we can get to other immigration issues,” said Meredith Singer, Government and Regulatory Affairs executive at IBM. 

She believes that due to support from Congress and the general population, immigration reform for ‘Dreamers’ would be the most likely solution to push forward first.

Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, originally an executive order signed by former President Obama, resulted in renewable two-year grants of protection from deportation—plus work permits and identity documents—for approximately 700,000 illegal immigrants who arrived in the country as children. They are called Dreamers. Congress has since put forward several pieces of legislation to provide a path to citizenship for DACA recipients, but none has yet passed. 

“There is broad bipartisan support for getting something done, specifically for Dreamers,” said Singer.

“Even Trump said we have to find a pathway forward here,” offered Casey Higgins, former legislative staffer and senior policy advisor at Akin-Gump. 

The movement on multiple pieces of legislation to address Dreamers, even in a Republican-controlled House and Senate in 2017 and 2018, leads Higgins to agree immigration reform targeted toward the group could show bipartisan success and pave the way for larger policy efforts.

Alida Garcia, vice president of Advocacy for FWD.us believes that similar to popular interest in helping Dreamers, current national sentiment can move the needle on immigration reform for another specific population. She said the nation’s appreciation of essential workers could actually make legalization a reality for those undocumented workers on the front line in heath care, food work, sanitation, retail, deliveries, and waste management.

Garcia identified a push to legalize essential workers “in recognition of the risk and sacrifice of essential workers, especially over the last year.”

“Also, France did this, legalizing the essential workforce in gratitude for their pandemic service.”

“When immigrants serve in the [U.S.] military, they get an expedited pathway to citizenship,” she reminded. She said that borrowing this concept of national service might acknowledge the service essential workers do and have done for the country. 

But there is also the case to be made that the efforts already put into immigration reform for a third party, agriculture workers, would best position it for a bipartisan win.

The Farm Workforce Modernization Act of 2019, which BPC Director of Immigration and Cross Border Policy Theresa Cardinal Brown has labeled “comprehensive immigration reform in miniature,” proposed legal status for the existing agro-workforce, updated and streamlined the H2A guest worker program providing easier access for foreign guest workers, and provided electronic verification and documentation. 

“[There was] a not-easy months-long slog to negotiate this bill,” said Jonathan Sarager, director of Federal Government Affairs for Western Growers, a coalition of family farmers that provide over half of the nation’s organic produce. “Union and industry came together. There was give and take by both parties for sure… There’s no other way for this issue to move forward, and I think both sides see that.”

Higgins also sees huge potential on an agriculture guest workforce bill “because it was negotiated out to find a bipartisan solution.”

As for President Biden’s proposed Immigration Reform Bill, most agree that it’s just too big to pass. 

“There are just too many issues included in the bill for it to garner enough support,” said Singer. 

Higgins believes that the proposal more likely acts as a marker for the administration, offering a starting point for negotiations. 

“There are provisions [in Biden’s proposal] that would give even some Democrats heartburn,” she said. 

“True comprehensive immigration reform gives everyone a good reason to vote ’no’ because of how politicized the issues are,” Higgins summarized. “What we haven’t tried yet is negotiating a bipartisan bill in smaller pieces. Taking different voting coalitions and putting them together to move multiple [smaller] bills [may be] helpful.”

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