It took fewer than three weeks of Washington control for Democrats to confront the vexing politics of immigration.
An effort to restrict stimulus checks to undocumented immigrants is blowing a hole in Democrats’ unity in the Biden era, after a bloc of Democrats sided with Republicans over their more progressive colleagues last week. The immigration status of those seeking new stimulus payments is shaping up as a major point of contention among Democrats as the House and Senate write their coronavirus relief bills, presaging the tough fights ahead among the party’s tight majorities in Congress on a politically volatile issue.
Eight Senate Democrats supported an amendment to the Senate’s budget during last week’s marathon vote-a-rama that would prohibit undocumented immigrants from receiving checks, a cast that includes the No. 4 Democratic leader Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.), the chair of the party’s campaign arm Gary Peters (D-Mich.) and senators up for reelection. Some Democrats and activists worry that amendment could block children and spouses of undocumented immigrants from receiving checks, leading 42 Democrats to oppose the effort.
Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) said in an interview that there was confusion about what the amendment did and lamented having only 60 seconds to debate it due to the rapid-fire pace of the votes. He worries that approval of that amendment in the final bill could stop checks from going to spouses or children of undocumented immigrants currently in line to receive them.
“Neither Biden nor any Democrat is proposing in this package to give any money to any undocumented person. The question is if you are the legal child, citizen of the United States, of an undocumented person, should you receive a check? I say yes,” Durbin said. He said when it comes up again he “would certainly take some time to try to explain it to those who voted the other way.”
The issue highlights the challenges Biden will face in trying to muscle through his first major legislative priority with tight majorities and several vulnerable incumbents on the ballot in 2022. It’s not clear whether the immigration provision, if included, would lead to larger opposition against the coronavirus relief package.
“Immigration is still sort of the third-rail of American politics,” said Domingo Garcia, national president for the League of United Latin American Citizens. “We still have a lot of work to do in convincing a lot of senators in purple states.”
Republicans are eager to drive a wedge between Democrats by picking them off to support their proposals. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell pointed out on Monday with some satisfaction that “over some Democrats’ objections, the Senate said illegal immigrants should not receive stimulus checks.”
The proposal last week from Sen. Todd Young (R-Ind.) would bar stimulus benefits like checks or tax breaks from going to undocumented immigrants, and the GOP can offer a similar proposal during future amendment votes on the $1.9 trillion relief bill Democrats are designing. Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) said he expected his party would offer it again at the next opportunity, likely in several weeks.
The last round of direct payments allowed mixed-status families access to some stimulus checks, a departure from the first round of checks from last spring. Sen. Jon Ossoff (D-Ga.) said he spoke to Young on the Senate floor about his amendment, but he concluded “the language risked American children being denied emergency aid during this crisis” and voted against it.
Progressives are already asking for an apology and pro-immigration groups are calling it a betrayal. Greisa Martinez Rosas, executive director of United We Dream Action, said the eight Democrats who supported the Young amendment “allowed themselves to be used as a tool to advance Republicans’ white nationalist agenda.”
Peters and Stabenow “are generally champions of progressive issues. And we certainly would think of them as being that way around immigration,” said Lonnie Scott, executive director of Progress Michigan. “They need to reconsider where they’re at and apologize to the people affected by that vote.”
When asked about his vote, Peters described Young’s proposal as nothing more than a “gotcha amendment” that didn’t have substance behind it. He added that it was irrelevant because “the folks who are undocumented are not part of the [Biden] proposal.”
A spokesperson for Sen. Kyrsten Sinema said that the Arizona Democrat “voted to uphold what is currently law, which does not allow individuals without work-eligible social security numbers to receive stimulus payments.” The spokesperson emphasized that the amendment does not deny support to mixed status families.
The Democratic senators who voted for the Young amendment also included Sens. John Hickenlooper of Colorado, Joe Manchin of West Virginia, Jon Tester of Montana, Maggie Hassan of New Hampshire and Mark Kelly of Arizona. Both Hassan and Kelly are up for re-election in 2022. It’s not clear if the senators would support the provision or a similar policy in a final package.
Garcia took particular issue with Hickenlooper’s vote to restrict access to those future checks because “Colorado is a solid blue state. There is no need for him to be pandering to the right.”
“I have no idea why he did what he did. He promised the Latino community he would be with us on immigration,” Garcia said.
He planned to try and lobby Hickenlooper directly to make sure the coronavirus relief bill doesn’t restrict spouses or children of undocumented immigrants from getting stimulus checks. A spokesperson for Hickenlooper told the Denver Post that politically charged votes on budget amendments “the kind of circus that makes Washington so famously dysfunctional.”
Other Democrats agreed, citing the nonbinding status of their votes. Tester said: “Everything we voted on didn’t matter.”
“It would be different if in fact there was some teeth in any of it. But there was no teeth in any of it,” he added.
Still, the matter was contentious enough that Democratic leadership sought to strip out controversial amendments at the end of last week’s marathon amendment series, including the immigration one. And coming up soon are tougher fights, including real, binding amendment votes on policy on the Senate floor over the next few weeks as Democrats drive toward passing a massive stimulus deal without GOP votes through reconciliation.
It will probably be harder to remove those amendments in the next round. And given the 50-50 split of the Senate, just one defection on a vote like that could insert a divisive provision in the bill and disrupt any carefully crafted compromise.
“There are undocumented people who pay taxes. … They also have children who are Americans. So they should get those checks,” said Sen. Mazie Hirono (D-Hawaii).
Asked what she made of the vote of eight Democrats who supported the Young amendment, Hirono replied: “I don’t agree with them. That’s what I make of it.”
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