As Biden Shifts On Immigration, Some Advocates See Him Giving Up Without A Fight

May 7, 2021
Originally published on May 7, 2021 11:36 am

President Biden rolled out a proposal to overhaul the nation's immigration system on his first day in office.

But on Day 100, he shifted to talk about a more targeted, pragmatic approach.

It left some advocates feeling abandoned.

"He said in his speech ... 'Oh, I fulfilled my promise. Now it's off my hands. The Congress now needs to pass,' " said Gema Lowe, an undocumented organizer with the group Movimiento Cosecha. "So he's washing his hands by saying that ... instead of fighting and putting pressure to pass a bill, not just introducing the bill."

In his first joint address to Congress last week, Biden reupped his call to pass his sweeping immigration overhaul. But at the same time he conceded the odds were stacked against the proposal getting enough Republican support to pass.

He urged Congress to approve smaller measures to protect farmworkers and people brought to the country illegally as children, which both already passed in the House.

"If you don't like my plan, let's at least pass what we all agree on," Biden said. "Congress needs to pass legislation this year to finally secure protection for DREAMers, the young people who have only known America as their home."

The line was met with large applause from members inside, but outside the halls of Congress, feelings were mixed.

Some like Lowe saw it as Biden giving up on protections for many of the 11 million undocumented immigrants in the country, but Ali Noorani of the National Immigration Forum saw it as recognizing the realities of current Washington politics.

"The balancing act here is between the art of what is necessary and the art of what is possible," Noorani said.

The White House doesn't see it as an either/or situation. As Biden said, he remains committed to his comprehensive plan as a way to address thorny issues that Congress has fought over for decades. But in the meantime, he wants to move on legislation to protect DREAMers and farmworkers, measures that have drawn bipartisan support in the past.

Democratic Rep. Zoe Lofgren of California, who was involved in crafting those bills, insists her party is not giving up on the broader package. But she said there is no reason not to get parts of it done in the meantime.

"Over the years, there's been an effort to do top-to-bottom reform to the exclusion of other, more limited measures," she said. "And the end result is nothing has ever passed."

Immigration activists march near the White House on April 30 to demand more immigration action from President Biden.
Nicholas Kamm / AFP via Getty Images

It was never going to be simple to pass a big overhaul in such a divided Congress. But allies of Biden and the Democrats say they must act now, while the party controls both the House and the Senate and the White House.

"I strongly believe — and it's the belief of many of the people who are working on this issue — that this cannot be another 'let's wait until there is a better time,' because unfortunately, there never is a better time," said Sergio Gonzales, a former adviser to then-Sen. Kamala Harris who's now director of the advocacy group Immigration Hub.

Next week, Biden plans to have lawmakers come to the White House to talk about his multitrillion-dollar jobs and infrastructure proposal.

Noorani says Biden will soon have to demonstrate that he's willing to put the same kind of political muscle behind getting something done on immigration.

"After infrastructure gets off the table, we need to make sure that immigration is the next issue on the couch at the Oval Office," he said. "And we're not there yet."

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

On his very first day in office, President Biden rolled out a wide-ranging plan to overhaul the immigration system. Last week, in his address to Congress, he shifted his approach and said he would accept narrower changes.

NPR White House correspondent Franco Ordoñez has been hearing what advocates think about that change.

FRANCO ORDOÑEZ, BYLINE: President Biden, last week, conceded that the odds were stacked against his first immigration proposal. On day one, he pledged to create a way for 11 million undocumented immigrants to get citizenship. But now he's talking about a more targeted approach.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: If you don't like my plan, let's at least pass what we all agree on.

ORDOÑEZ: He's looking at smaller proposals to protect farm workers and people brought to the country illegally as children.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BIDEN: Congress needs to pass legislation this year to finally secure protection for DREAMers...

(CHEERING)

BIDEN: ...The young people who've only known America as their home.

(CHEERING)

ORDOÑEZ: But some advocates are not cheering for this shift. Gema Lowe is an undocumented organizer of Movimiento Cosecha.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (Chanting in Spanish).

ORDOÑEZ: She helped lead thousands of demonstrators to Washington last weekend to protest the lack of progress.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (Chanting in Spanish).

ORDOÑEZ: They're chanting, "papers, yes, crumbs, no." Lowe says she wouldn't be helped by this smaller plan, and she feels Biden gave up too easy.

GEMA LOWE: Well, he said in his speeches that, oh, I fulfill my promise, and now it's off my hands. It's - the Congress now needs to pass it. So he's washing his hands by saying that instead of fighting and putting pressure to pass a bill, not just introducing the bill.

ORDOÑEZ: It was never going to be simple to pass a big overhaul in such a divided Congress. But Biden's allies warn their patience will only last so long.

SERGIO GONZALES: I strongly believe, and it's the belief of many of the people who are working on this issue, that this cannot be another let's wait until there's a better time...

ORDOÑEZ: That's Sergio Gonzalez. He worked on past immigration bills as a Hill aide and later for then-Senator Kamala Harris. Now he's director of the advocacy group Immigration Hub.

GONZALES: ...Because, unfortunately, there never is a better time.

ORDOÑEZ: He says Democrats must act now while the party controls both chambers of Congress and the White House.

GONZALES: We don't know what is going to happen in 2022. We don't know if there will be a different congressional make up.

ORDOÑEZ: The White House says Biden remains committed to his comprehensive plan, that it's not an either-or matter. But they want to see the Senate move on the two measures that have already passed the House.

Representative Zoe Lofgren of California was involved in crafting those bills. She insists Democrats are not giving up on the broader package. But in the meantime, they can get part of it done.

ZOE LOFGREN: Over the years, there's been an effort to do top-to-bottom reform to the exclusion of other, more limited measures. And the end result is nothing has ever passed.

ORDOÑEZ: Next week, Biden plans to have lawmakers come to the White House. They'll talk about roads, bridges, broadband and jobs.

Ali Noorani of the National Immigration Forum gets that Biden is taking a practical approach. But he also says Biden must show he's ready to put some real political muscle behind the fight for immigration.

ALI NOORANI: After infrastructure gets off the table, we need to make sure that immigration is the next issue on the couch at the Oval Office, and we're not there yet.

ORDOÑEZ: And only then, he says, will advocates know that the president is really invested, politically invested.

Franco Ordoñez, NPR News, the White House.

(SOUNDBITE OF FREDDIE JOACHIM'S "RIVER") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.