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Immigration Policy Experts Weigh In On Biden Challenges Ahead

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

All this weekend, we are reviewing some of the challenges that the incoming Biden administration will face, and now we want to turn to immigration. Curtailing immigration, both legal and illegal, was a top goal for President Trump. And it's one of the issues President-elect Joe Biden has promised to address on his very first day in office by sending an immigration reform bill to Congress - that according to a memo issued this weekend by the incoming chief of staff, Ron Klain. It's widely reported that the bill will seek to provide a pathway to citizenship for an estimated 11 million people who are currently in the U.S. without documentation, including automatic green cards for immigrants protected by the Temporary Protected Status program, generally issued to people fleeing emergencies, and DACA, or Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, policies for people who came as children.

But this also comes at a time when, as we've also said, the president-elect's margins in Congress are narrow. So we wanted to talk more about what advocates and policy experts believe will be possible. For that, we're joined by Theresa Cardinal Brown. She worked on immigration policy in the administrations of President Obama and George W. Bush, and she's now director of immigration and cross-border policy at the Bipartisan Policy Center.

Theresa Cardinal Brown, welcome. Thanks for joining us.

THERESA CARDINAL BROWN: Happy to be here.

MARTIN: And we're also joined by Chuck Rocha. He is a former senior adviser to the Bernie Sanders presidential campaign, and he's one of the people credited with the Sanders campaign's success with Latino voter turnout.

Chuck Rocha, thank you so much for joining us as well.

CHUCK ROCHA: Thanks for having me, Michel.

MARTIN: So, Theresa Cardinal Brown, I'm going to start with you because for years, it seemed that there was a Republican and Democratic consensus that the immigration system was broken. But what emerged during the Trump years was a disagreement over how. I mean, it became clear that Trump just thought there was just too much immigration, period. So now that he is gone and that his administration is about to be gone, do you think that that consensus still exists?

BROWN: I do think there is a broad consensus not just among elected Republicans and Democrats, but in the country as a whole. One of the ironic things of the results of the Trump presidency that we have seen is that actually, support for immigrants and immigration, people who believe that immigrants are good for the country and people who support either keeping immigration the same or increasing it, have actually gone up. So to the extent that Trump ran on and was trying to please a portion of the electorate that wants to see fewer immigrants, that didn't succeed.

And additionally, support for legalizing those long-term immigrants who have been here for a long time, especially DREAMers, has also gone up and is now a majority among Republicans and Democrats. So I do think that in spite of the strong enforcement tone that the Trump administration took, there's an underlying consensus. The question is whether or not, with Trump leaving office, that underlying consensus can now come back to the fore and can result in actual changes.

MARTIN: Chuck, do you agree with that?

ROCHA: I do. I think when you have an issue that the AFL-CIO and the Chamber of Commerce agree on, it seems like we could get Congress to agree on it as well. I own a large political consulting firm made up of entirely Latino staff. I have DACA recipients and TPS recipients who work directly for me. So as an employer of these young people that have been here since they were little kids who are amazing people who are way smarter than me and way better than I'll ever be, this is exactly the kind of things we should be fixing first.

And then there's many more things we should address in making sure that our system that's been - we love to say that it's broken. It's more than broken. We should have a way for folks to legally come into this country immediately through a process that's fair and equitable, where we're having the best of everybody who wants to come here in a legal way. Set up something that's not just a militarization of our borders, but something that's fair and equitable to everybody because 99.9% of everybody who comes to this country aspires to be an American. They aspire to pay taxes and be part of a fabric that we all look back to our ancestry about to make this place even better than it is.

MARTIN: So what I'm hearing you saying is that both of you think that there's a consensus around, you know, normalizing the status of the people who are already here and creating a more orderly system of immigration so that people aren't in limbo for - what? - in some cases, you know, 20 years. I mean, you hear stories about people who've been actually trying to sort of figure out how to normalize their status for 10 or 20 years. I mean, and there doesn't seem to sort of be a way to do it. So I hear that.

But, Theresa, but - you know what? As a person who worked on this for years, if that was the consensus that existed before, why did nothing change for all those years? And what gives you some - what gives you hope that something can change now?

BROWN: Well, I think we need to kind of understand a little bit of history. So, you know, starting in the early 2000s with President George W. Bush, there was this idea - and it was a consensus among a lot of immigration advocates on the left and the right - that we needed what was called comprehensive immigration reform. And how that was defined was three pieces. It was legalization for those already here, it was border security, and it was reforms of the legal immigration system.

And Republicans insisted continuously that enforcement had to come before legalization. And that was a priority, and that limited the ability of things to get done. Over the years, that idea of the trade-off of border security for legalization, especially as we have seen what the Trump administration did with enforcement and how they ramped that up to 110 and the ways it was done and how many Americans felt that it was not done in a way that was humane, the epitome of which was the separation of children from their parents - I think that trade-off is no longer quite there.

What we have heard from the Biden administration is this bill is going to have a very broad legalization component. What we haven't heard enough of, I think, is where the legal immigration piece fits. So one of the things, I think, that we need to kind of come back to - and I hope the Biden administration will do this - is looking again at legal immigration system reforms. I think that's going to be the key because we have to have an alternative to enforcement to deal with the next people who want to come.

MARTIN: So, Chuck, what about that? I mean, if you agree that sort of normalizing the status of people who are already here is a priority, what comes after that? I mean, you have your ear to the ground in communities. What are you hearing on that question?

ROCHA: Well, what Theresa has described is right, and it's common-sense policy, the way she's looking at this and the way that anybody with common sense would think of a policy solution around border security based off of legalization. And this turns into this policy debate. But the problem is not about the policy debate or what comes first, the chicken or the egg. The problem is politics. And it's just raw politics has kept all of this from happening at a lot of different levels.

You know, we're willing to give Biden a shot and let him prove us wrong in believing in what he's doing and see if he starts by doing the right things. Immediately, he can roll back some of these racist executive actions. Immediately, he can take a bill like you're talking about to Congress, where I think there's enough will there to probably get something done. It may not be perfect, but it could be a good step forward. All of us don't want to let, you know, perfect be the enemy of good. And we want to see something. And first thing is, these people that are here, the DACA recipients, TPS - let's get some things in here to make sure that we have a pathway for 11 million. What happens with these essential workers who've been working who are undocumented? We should be fast-tracking those people, as the new U.S. senator from California is proposing with Congressman Castro. Like, I think there are middle grounds here we can do immediately that would really make the left wing of the Latino movement feel a lot less anxious and will trust Biden more and more and more as this administration goes forward.

MARTIN: OK, Theresa - final thought from you, though, on this question. I mean, you heard what Chuck said as a political, you know, player. His - you know, his argument - it isn't the policy, it's the politics. And that's kind of pretty much what you were saying as well. So how optimistic are you that if there are successes in this area, say, in - that President-elect Biden says are priorities and that you think there's already consensus around - do you think that will create the political will around the sort of the broader changes that you would hope to see - rethinking the legal immigration framework, which is something that people say needs to happen?

BROWN: Well, we have to be realistic about Congress. Congress has not worked well for a long time. It didn't really work all that great under the last years of the Obama administration. It certainly didn't work well under the Trump administration. And as you mentioned, we have a very closely divided House and Senate. What does that mean? That means politically, if you need to get a majority of votes on either side - and I'm especially concerned about the Senate - you're going to have to appeal to the moderates.

I tend to think that a big bill that the Biden folks are going to introduce Day 1 is not the bill that's going to move. I tend to think that we are going to see smaller efforts that may be able to put on a COVID package. Or, you know, there's talk about reconciliation, although that's limited by something called the Byrd Rule, so it has to relate to revenue or expenditures in order to be on reconciliation. But I think we have to find those smaller packages that can get through. And I tend to think that one way to bring on moderates and those folks in the Republican Party who are for kind of the common-sense solution is to talk more about how legal immigration changes can help businesses. That's what they really want to see. That can bring them on board without necessarily going over the trod ground of border security. But you're going to need to get a few votes from that side.

MARTIN: I think this is going to be our first conversation and not our only.

(LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: And so let's touch base again as things progress, and we'll talk again. That's Theresa Cardinal Brown from the Bipartisan Policy Center. She worked on immigration policy in the Bush and Obama administrations. We also heard from Chuck Rocha, former senior adviser to the Bernie Sanders campaign and a political consultant. Thank you both so much for talking with us.

BROWN: Thank you.

ROCHA: Thank you, Michel.

(SOUNDBITE OF RALEGH LONG'S "THE LIZARD") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.