Politics & Government

Republicans said they made a mistake on immigration. Democrats are doing the same thing

Democrats on Tuesday passed an immigration bill that would provide protections for millions of immigrants, including the so-called Dreamers who were brought to the country illegally as children.

It’s a step further than Republicans got last year, when they tried to pass immigration reform after weeks of negotiations and failed.

“This is about honoring the respect for families that is at the heart of our faith and who we are as Americans. ... There should be nothing partisan or political about this legislation, and we are proud to pass it,” said House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-San Francisco.

But now, like last year’s bill, the Democratic plan stalls, as Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell controls whether it goes any further.

Chances of that are slim to none, since President Donald Trump opposes the bill.

It’s a lesson California’s former Republican Rep. Jeff Denham, one of the major players behind last year’s Republican immigration bill, said he learned last year.

“I’m now convinced immigration will never get done without bipartisan support,” Denham, R-Turlock, said at the time. He was defeated by Democrat Rep. Josh Harder in 2018 and now works at a Washington, D.C. lobbying firm. He did not return a request for comment.

Last year, Denham, former California Rep. David Valadao of Hanford and other Republicans tried to force immigration bills to a vote. Denham and others said their goal was to help Dreamers, who they felt deserved a path to legal citizenship. Democrats were willing to vote for the plan.

To curb it and make a bill that could win more support from Republicans, GOP leaders negotiated between immigration moderates like Denham and the conservative House Freedom Caucus. They tried to design a Republican immigration bill that could pass the House — with majority Republican support.

Ultimately, the bill that went to a vote limited legal immigration too much for Democrats and included too much amnesty for conservative Republicans. After weeks of near-constant negotiations, the bill failed.

Now, House Democrats have shown they’re more in agreement than House Republicans on how to reform the immigration system, passing their bill 237 to 187. No Democrats voted against the legislation, and seven Republicans voted for it.

It would provide a 10-year protected status for 1.6 million Dreamers, a path to citizenship for the 700,000 who signed up for former President Barack Obama’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program and further protected status for the 300,000 under Temporary Protected Status and 3,600 under Deferred Enforcement Departure.

Temporary Protected States recipients are nationals who are unable to safely return to their home countries due to armed conflict, natural disaster or other extraordinary circumstances. Deferred enforcement recipients are Liberian nationals displaced by conflict and the Ebola crisis and allowed to remain under protected status in the U.S.

But now, the bill needs Senate Republican support to go any further.

Democrats have not sought that, according to a Democratic leadership aide. Democrats described Trump as both “all over the place” on immigration and too supportive of proposals they consider to be extreme, such as eliminating diversity visas.

Instead, the aide said it was important to show the American people what Democrats wanted to accomplish, absent Republican input.

“If passed by the House of Representatives, it is up to Mitch McConnell to do the right thing and bring this important legislation to a vote,” said Rep. Zoe Lofgren, D-San Jose, one of the original authors of the legislation.

Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart, R-Florida, who was part of the Republican team pushing for immigration action last year and voted for the Democrats’ bill Tuesday, called it an “absolutely fake messaging bill.” He said Democrats made no effort to sit down with Republicans to work out a compromise bill.

“It’s not about bringing things to get them done, it’s about messaging,” Diaz-Balart. “The sad part is knowing that therefore, it won’t get done, especially when you’re thinking about these individuals who really need help, they need a status.”

That’s going to play well for Democrats, especially given how limited this bill really is, according to Matt Barreto, co-founder of Latino Decisions, a leading Latino polling and research firm. He said Republicans have voiced support for everything in the bill in the past, and if McConnell refuses to even consider taking up the bill and revise it then the blame will fall squarely on Republicans.

“There is no scenario where this failing would be Democrats’ fault,” Barreto said. “It’s smart for them to pass this clean bill, which is such a small slice of what needs to be done.”

Harder, who took Denham’s former seat in Congress, agreed the bill should be bipartisan.

“Dreamers are doing everything we’ve asked of them and almost 80 percent of Americans agree they should have a pathway to citizenship,” Harder said. “There’s overwhelming support for the Dreamers and it’s not a red team-blue team issue.”

But passing a limited bill and automatically expecting support is not how it works in Congress, Diaz-Balart said.

“This process requires you sit down with folks and ask what can get votes,” he said. “They haven’t done that, which means they weren’t sincere about getting it done.”

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Kate Irby is based in Washington, D.C. and reports on issues important to McClatchy’s California newspapers, including the Sacramento Bee, Fresno Bee and Modesto Bee. She previously reported on breaking news in D.C., politics in Florida for the Bradenton Herald and politics in Ohio for the Cleveland Plain Dealer.