Experts urge immigration reform — even if Congress has to do it bit by bit

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The goal: to make sure at least something gets passed.

Democratic lawmakers are considering a "piecemeal" strategy to pass a comprehensive immigration bill — something experts say may help get it "across the finish line," even if the process is slower.

On Feb. 18, Democrats, spurred on by President Joe Biden's proposals, unveiled the sweeping U.S. Citizenship Act, which would pave a path to citizenship for approximately 11 million undocumented immigrants.

It would shorten the "process to legal status for agriculture workers" and Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program recipients, according to USA Today, granting eligible immigrants temporary status for five years, after which they would be able to apply for a green card, giving them permanent status for three years before allowing them to apply for citizenship.

Portions of Rep. Judy Chu (D-CA)'s Reuniting Families Act are also included, addressing families separated by immigration backlogs or stuck in temporary status, according to Asian Americans Advancing Justice, a law and immigration nonprofit group. The bill would increase the diversity visa cap from 55,000 to 80,000, which the group noted is "a main pathway for immigrants from Africa."

The legislation is sure to face tough odds, with few Republicans on board, and broad sweeping immigration reform hasn't been passed in decades — so Democrats are looking to break it up it up into smaller, more easily managed parts to give it a better shot at surviving Congress.

"I salute the president," said House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) in a press conference on Thursday, referring to the legislation and suggesting it might be broken up. "...There are others who want to do piecemeal, and that may be a good approach too. That’s up to the Congress to decide."

Rep. Henry Cuellar (D-TX) told the Associated Press that though he supports "full, comprehensive immigration reform, I'm ready to move on piecemeal, because I don't want to end up with good intentions on my hands and not have anything."

"I'd rather have progress," he said, adding that "reality is going to hit" forcing lawmakers to pursue an incremental strategy.

Immigration experts have expressed some confidence in the idea, pointing to Biden's years in the Senate to make their case.

Gregory Z. Chen, Esq., government relations senior director for the American Immigration Lawyers Association, said in an email that Biden knows "when to push for a comprehensive package or for separate components."

"Proceeding piecemeal won’t necessarily hurt chances of future reform, and in fact, it may bolster confidence among Republicans and Democrats that they can be successful on immigration and get reform done," Chen said.

Tom Jawetz, the Center for American Progress' immigration policy vice president, told the AP that Biden was simply being realistic about what's possible.

"He also knows how to count votes, and he knows what it takes to get legislation across the line," added Jawetz. "I think there is real energy behind pressing forward on all fronts and seeing what shakes out."

Other immigration advocates like Lorella Praeli, president of Community Change Action, have pushed hard for an overall change in strategy after past failures. Her group has called on Biden to use reconciliation, which requires a simple majority vote, to pass the bill's smaller components as he pushes the broader effort, according to the New York Times.

"I'm committed to seeing this through and delivering on concrete changes," Praeli said, citing "a fight that we've had for over three decades."

Greisa Martinez Rosas, who leads the immigration advocacy group United We Dream, told the AP, "I know what it's like to lose on big bills and small bills. The fear that people have experienced in the last four years deserves every single opportunity, every single bill to remedy."

"The biggest thing here is that we're going to get something across the finish line," she said.

Hiroshi Motomura, professor at UCLA School of Law, noted there were positive and negative elements to breaking up the larger legislation into smaller parts.

"The piecemeal strategy is likely to make passage of significant parts of the bill more likely, but the piecemeal strategy is likely to make passage of the entire package less likely," Motomura told the American Independent Foundation.

Erika Andiola, chief advocacy officer for the Refugee and Immigrant Center for Education and Legal Services, for her part has pressed the urgency of the matter, saying in a statement that "now is the time for Democrats to use every tool at their disposal" to ensure reform happens.

"We have lived through many broken promises on immigration," Andiola added. "...Passing legislation this year will be no easy task given the extreme wing of the Republican Party and moderate Democrats who want to appeal to Republican supporters. Regardless of the challenges, President Biden and the Democratic leaders in Congress must keep their promise."

Published with permission of The American Independent Foundation.