Frustrated Democrats want Biden to follow asylum limit with immigrant protections

Hispanic Democrats are ramping up the pressure on President Biden to take unilateral action to protect immigrants living and working in the United States.

Members of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus (CHC) are furious that Biden moved this week to put new limits on asylum-seekers without also advancing legal protections for farmworkers, Dreamers and other undocumented immigrants — reforms they had presented during a meeting with the president at the White House last month.

In the wake of Biden’s new restrictive asylum policy, they want the White House to launch another round of immigration executive orders to provide some equilibrium between strict enforcement and immigrant rights — a difficult balance in an election year when Biden is scrambling to address the border crisis without alienating Hispanic voters.

“I think he’s trying to address half the issue, the half the issue he was able to address. But he needs to address the other piece of it,” said Rep. Robert Garcia (D-Calif.), a first-term CHC member. “I am hopeful, and so are my conversations with the White House, that there’s more action coming, and that’s what I’m hoping for.”

Rep. Adriano Espaillat (D-N.Y.), deputy chair of the Hispanic Caucus, ticked off a number of reforms at the top of the CHC’s executive order wish list. These reforms include efforts to shield from deportation the undocumented spouses of U.S. citizens, a group estimated to number more than 1 million; to apply similar protections to the so-called Dreamers, people brought into the country illegally as children and estimated to number more than 3 million; to grant new labor protections and legal rights to immigrant farmworkers; and to expand work permits to include more undocumented immigrants.

“I think those four — maybe in that order — could be interesting pieces that could balance what seems to be an enforcement-only initiative,” Espaillat said.

Those aren’t the only proposals the CHC is advocating for.

The group is also clamoring to expedite — or in some cases, simply create — a pathway to citizenship for the estimated 12 million undocumented immigrants living in the U.S. Many of those people are already working, paying taxes and feeding into the Social Security and Medicare systems, the Democrats argue, and should be empowered to benefit from those contributions.

“Having an enforcement-only executive order, I think it’s disappointing, and I think that we really need to make sure that we’re actually solving the problem, which requires expanding a path to citizenship,” Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) told reporters shortly before Biden officially rolled out his action.

The citizenship pathway has been controversial for decades, however, especially among conservatives who characterize such a policy as “amnesty” for those who broke the law the moment they arrived in the country.

In 2014, when House GOP leaders floated a comprehensive immigration reform package that included legal status for the undocumented population, conservatives in their conference killed it within days. And the party has shifted only further to the right since then.

With that in mind, some Democrats are suggesting that Biden adopt a more targeted proposal to offer citizenship to those serving in the U.S. armed forces — a less contentious concept that could insulate the president from Republican attacks on the campaign trail.

“There’s other conversation about whether or not he can formalize a stronger pathway to citizenship for folks that are serving in the military, strengthening issues around DACA,” Garcia said. “So I think that there are — and he has done some of that already — there are places where more can be done, and I strongly encourage the president to move on this.”

Still, other Democrats are urging the administration to streamline the system for processing asylum-seekers at the southern border, where thousands of migrants are arriving each day.

Funding to increase the number of immigration judges was included in a bipartisan Senate deal earlier in the year that was sunk by Republicans after former President Trump came out against the package. But Rep. Juan Vargas (D-Calif.), who represents a border district around San Diego, suggested that Biden can shuffle funding internally to boost that number without congressional action.

“The way to do it is to move resources around within the budget that you have. I think you can do that through executive order, and that’s what I would like to see,” Vargas said. “People then could apply for asylum, but you could figure out pretty quickly whether they really had a case or it’s just economic asylum that they’re asking for, where they don’t have a case.”

Biden, for his part, has signaled that more action — including on the issue of immigration —  will be on the way after he moved to address the situation at the southern border by unveiling an executive order that would shut off asylum requests when the seven-day average of daily border crossings exceeds 2,500 people ports of entry.

“Today, I have spoken about what we need to do to secure the border. In the weeks ahead — and I mean the weeks ahead — I will speak to how we can make our immigration system more fair and more just,” he said Tuesday.

His decision to go at it alone came after Senate Republicans twice blocked a bipartisan border bill — once in February, again in May — from advancing, despite it being negotiated by the GOP Sen. James Lankford (Okla.) and hailed as a conservative product.

The timing, however, is significant: The situation at the southern border has emerged as a central campaign issue — and a key vulnerability for Biden — this election cycle. Voters have consistently named immigration and the border as the most important problem facing the U.S. in the lead-up to November, and more have said they trust Trump to address the situation over Biden.

Those dynamics led to Biden’s executive order, which has fractured the Democratic caucus, pitting vulnerable Democrats concerned about the situation at the southern border — and looking for something to campaign on in their purple districts — against liberals up in arms over what they see as a harsh policy that mirrors moves taken during the Trump administration.

“Today’s executive order severely limits access to asylum and is deeply concerning to our caucus,” Espaillat wrote in a statement with CHC Chair Nanette Barragán (D-Calif.) and caucus Whip Sylvia Garcia (D-Texas). “Such measures impede progress and harm migrants fleeing violence and persecution, who otherwise would present a credible and meritorious case for asylum.”

But even within some of the most liberal corners of the Democratic caucus, Biden’s executive order is splitting progressives.

In a move that raised some eyebrows, Rep. Steven Horsford (D-Nev.) — a vulnerable lawmaker who chairs the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC) — praised Biden’s move as “an essential step to protect our border,” while Rep. Yvette Clarke (D-N.Y.), the co-chair of the CBC’s Foreign Affairs and Immigration Task Force, railed against the executive order, arguing that it will “prevent countless Black immigrants” from utilizing their legal right to apply for asylum in the U.S.

“We should move toward a more nuanced approach that considers the real humanitarian issues that migrants are facing each day,” she added.

Copyright 2024 Nexstar Media, Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

For the latest news, weather, sports, and streaming video, head to The Hill.