Oct 12, 2023 - Politics & Policy

Democratic divide over immigration spills out among Hispanic lawmakers

Rep. Nanette Diaz Barragan (D-Calif.), chair of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, speaks during a news conference. Photo: Drew Angerer/Getty Images

The Congressional Hispanic Caucus is divided over the best way to respond to illegal immigration — a microcosm of the broader debate in the Democratic Party on what to do about the southern border.

Why it matters: Top Democrats know the scenes of migrants streaming at the border — coupled with cities being overwhelmed across the country — are presenting a massive political problem for President Biden and congressional Democrats.

  • But finding legislation to thread the needle between moderate demands for increased enforcement and progressive requirements for more pathways to citizenship is already proving difficult.

Driving the news: Last Tuesday, the CHC held a roughly 45-minute meeting focused entirely on immigration, with Rep. Veronica Escobar (D-Texas) trying to garner support for the bipartisan Dignity Act, according to aides and lawmakers.

  • They held a second immigration meeting Thursday, as the group grapples with how to wield its power to get something done on a topic that has long evaded real reform in Congress.

What we're hearing: Escobar's pitch was not received well by several members in attendance last week.

  • The legislation, which Escobar introduced in May with Rep. Maria Elvira Salazar (R-Fla.), includes $35 billion for border and port security, but also provides opportunities for some undocumented migrants to receive work permits — and potentially citizenship.
  • It also creates so-called "humanitarian campuses" where families would be required to stay for as many as 60 days while going through the asylum process.
  • Others in the meeting argued the priority should be passing Biden's U.S. Citizenship Act, first introduced by Rep. Linda Sanchez (D-Calif.) in 2021 with wide Democratic support.
  • Sanchez's legislation offers significant pathways to citizenship for DACA participants and TPS holders, but it saw no real movement — even with Democrats in the majority. It would never pass with Republicans in control.

What they are saying: "It was an amicable discussion — and an honest discussion — about some of the provisions in the bill that some members will have difficulty with," Rep. Adriano Espaillat (D-N.Y.), who is a co-sponsor of the bill, told Axios about last week's meeting.

  • "You have to have a balanced approach, and that includes more money for border security," he said.
  • "The Biden administration has put some good proposals on the table," he said. "But much more has to be done."
  • Another Democratic lawmaker described it as a "very good" discussion around the "varying views on immigration" — calling it "healthy."
  • "It was an interesting confrontation of the fact that CHC is not an ideological caucus," the member said.
  • "The caucus has endorsed a number of bills and believes that all of these bills would advance caucus priorities and serve to fix our broken immigration and asylum system, including the Farm Workforce Modernization Act, Lifting Immigrant Families Through Benefits Access Restoration (LIFT the BAR) Act, and the Dream and Promise Act of 2023," Chairwoman Nanette Diaz Barragán (D-Calif.) told Axios.

Zoom out: The White House has already taken drastic measures to crack down on the number of migrants and asylum seekers illegally crossing the U.S.-Mexico border. These include resuming border wall construction, deportations to Venezuela and moving to use foreign aid to help Panama's deportations.

  • These actions have been condemned by some CHC members and immigrant rights groups.
  • "The Biden administration's decision to build more wall is antithetical to the values they have promised to uphold for the American people," said Rep. Raul Grijalva (D-Ariz.).
  • "If this administration chooses to support Panama's migrant deportation programs, it would send a dangerous message about the obligations of receiving countries to protect migrants and asylum-seekers within their borders," Barragán and Congressional Black Caucus Chair Steven Horsford (D-Nev.) said in a joint statement Thursady.

Zoom in: Republicans have stoked Democratic tensions and forced cities far away from the border to grapple with the influx of migrants.

What to watch: Congress may soon have an opening to get something done on the border, with the White House planning to send an emergency funding package next week with money for the border as well as Israel, Ukraine and Taiwan.

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