WASHINGTON (BLOOMBERG) - Democrats in Congress said they are ploughing ahead with President Joe Biden's proposal for legislation that revamps immigration policy, but widening Republican opposition could push the debate on a comprehensive measure into later this year or next.
Senator Bob Menendez, a New Jersey Democrat, said he will introduce legislation reflecting Mr Biden's proposal, which would offer a pathway to citizenship for roughly 11 million people living illegally in the United States..
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said on Thursday (Jan 21) that Democratic Representative Linda Sanchez of California will introduce Mr Biden's bill in that chamber.
Mr Menendez said on Wednesday that his goal is to see legislation arrive at Mr Biden's desk sometime this year so it does not get caught up in mid-term election politics in 2022. He also said he is reaching out to senators in both parties who have helped craft bipartisan deals in the past and to others who might want to engage.
"If we want to achieve it, then it has to be done this year because when we get into an election year the dynamics of that begin to change how much political capital people want to use," Mr Menendez told reporters.
The political landscape has changed since the last time Congress even got close to agreeing on a comprehensive immigration bill.
Some of the Republicans who previously showed a willingness to compromise are no longer in the Senate, and progressive Democrats have shifted their demands in response to the way immigration was used as a wedge issue by former president Donald Trump to fire up his supporters.
Senate GOP leader Mitch McConnell, whose cooperation will be needed for most legislative action in a Senate split 50-50, blasted Mr Biden's proposal.
Speaking on the Senate floor on Thursday, Mr McConnell called the plan "blanket amnesty that would gut enforcement for American laws while creating huge new incentives for people to rush here illegally at the same time".
Senator Rick Scott, a Florida Republican, also panned Mr Biden's proposal, calling it "a radical immigration agenda of amnesty and open borders".
Senate Judiciary chairman Dick Durbin, who will be working with Mr Menendez to advance immigration legislation, said on the Senate floor on Wednesday that he wants to move first a more narrow bill that provides a pathway to citizenship for "Dreamers", or immigrants brought to the US illegally as young children.
"I want this to be the first measure that we consider in the area of immigration," Mr Durbin said, adding that his efforts on similar bipartisan proposals have stalled in Congress for 20 years and the young immigrants deserve a swift resolution to their status. He said he was willing to compromise on the terms to get it done, and he called on Republicans to come to the table.
"We have to take a step forward once and for all to help these young people," he said.
Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, the top Republican on the Judiciary Committee and long time backer of bipartisan immigration reforms, told reporters there probably would not be enough votes in the Senate to pass anything beyond a bill helping the "Dreamers".
Mr Biden has already begun doing what he can without Congress to dismantle some of Mr Trump's get-tough approaches on immigration. Among other things, he signed an executive order directing the Homeland Security Secretary to protect the Obama-era Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals programme that provides deportation protections for Dreamers, which has been in limbo since Mr Trump ended the programme in 2017.
Mr Biden also signed another executive action ending Mr Trump's restrictions on travel and immigration from some predominantly Muslim countries, as well as a proclamation to stop construction of Mr Trump's wall along the US-Mexico border.
Meanwhile, the Department of Homeland Security announced that starting Friday it will have a 100-day pause on deportations for certain non-citizens in the US.
Mr Biden's legislative proposal would provide a pathway to citizenship for roughly 11 million people living illegally in the US. It would be an eight-year process, down from 13, and an even shorter one for the Dreamers.
The bill also would bolster assistance to Central American countries, ease immigration for people fleeing violence and would increase prosecution of human traffickers and drug smugglers.
Yet, Mr Biden's bill does not call for a major increase in border security measures in exchange, something that is drawing an early backlash from Republicans in both chambers. That includes from Senator Marco Rubio, a Florida Republican and a lead negotiator of a comprehensive bipartisan immigration bill that passed in the Senate in 2013.
"Before we deal with immigration we need to deal with Covid, make sure everyone has the chance to find a good job, and confront the threat from China," Mr Rubio said.
He added: "America should always welcome immigrants who want to become Americans. But we need laws that decide who and how many people can come here, and those laws must be followed and enforced.
"There are many issues I think we can work cooperatively with (President) Biden, but a blanket amnesty for people who are here unlawfully isn't going to be one of them."
In the Democrat-led House, Republican leaders seemed to show no interest in compromise. House Minority Whip Steve Scalise's office on Wednesday rejected Mr Biden's proposal, calling it "mass amnesty for illegal immigrants".
He said: "President Biden's immigration bill provides all illegal immigrants with access to a Green Card and a pathway to citizenship.
"This is not only an insult to the millions of legal immigrants who followed the proper immigration process, but has also reportedly sparked a rush of migrants trying to cross the southern border to gain amnesty."
In a call on Thursday with the American Business Immigration Coalition, Mr Menendez did not say when he will introduce his legislation, and he recognised the need to adjust some provisions to build more GOP support. He said he expects all 50 senators who vote with Democrats to back a comprehensive measure, but it still will need support from at least 10 Republicans to overcome any filibuster.
"This will be tough," Mr Menendez said, adding that "it will take a lot of hard work. This will take negotiation as well".