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Immigration Policymaker On Biden's Reform Plans

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

We're going to turn now to the subject of immigration reform, which is a top priority for the Biden administration. President Biden has fulfilled his promise to send Congress an immigration reform bill. Details of the proposed legislation were unveiled last week by congressional Democrats. And it includes, among other things, a path to citizenship for the approximately 11 million immigrants who are in the U.S. without documentation.

We wanted to talk about the plan in more detail, so we've invited Theresa Cardinal Brown to join us once again. She worked on immigration policy under President Barack Obama and President George W. Bush, and she's now the director of immigration and cross-border policy at the Bipartisan Policy Center. Welcome back, Theresa Cardinal Brown.

THERESA CARDINAL BROWN: Hi, nice to be here.

MARTIN: We're also joined again by Chuck Rocha, who is a former senior adviser to the Bernie Sanders presidential campaign, and he is one of the people credited with the Sanders campaign's success with Latino turnout. Welcome back to you as well, Chuck Rocha.

CHUCK ROCHA: Hey, Michel. It's good to be here.

MARTIN: So, Theresa Cardinal Brown, I'm going to start with you because this Biden plan is ambitious. As we mentioned, it offers a path to citizenship for immigrants in the U.S. without documentation. It also expands legal immigration as well. This is something that we talked about in our prior conversation. Your - you said that part of - you know, the problem has been that there has not been kind of a truly comprehensive approach to addressing the issues before us. Does this plan do that, in your view?

CARDINAL BROWN: I'd say it makes a good attempt. I think, obviously, the big centerpiece is the broad-based legalization programs. As you mentioned, it does expand the number of green cards available for both employment-based and family-based immigrants. But it doesn't make major changes to the immigration system - for example, the categories of who can come or the criteria under which they could come.

It has a little bit about border security. It does lean heavily on the idea of using technology and other surveillance systems to help secure the border, and it addresses needs at ports of entry. And it makes a big effort at addressing the root causes of migration from Central America. So I think there's a lot of good bones to this, but it's not necessarily fully comprehensive. But I think a lot of it has a pretty broad base of support, too.

MARTIN: Chuck, what about you? I mean, you are a guy who counts votes. I mean, that's - you know, you're a guy who, you know, kind of generates support for ideas and sort of for people. What's your take on this?

ROCHA: I think that it's very, very important and probably the single most important thing that's going to happen in conjunction with the 2022 midterm elections. The majority is in the House and the Senate. Flow-through districts and states where the Latino vote is the centerpiece of how Democrats will win - we've talked on this program and others of the lack of performance down-ballot with Democrats, with Latinos. If they don't get this done - if again they use our community as a pinata, knocking us from one side to the next - you can kiss away the Democratic majority in the House and the Senate.

MARTIN: What do you think of the bill, Chuck?

ROCHA: Oh, I think it's good. Like, you know, I've lived through a lot of this. I've lived through the '80s and the '90s and watched us go from Democrat to Republican. It's a good start. You know, I would agree with Theresa. Like, we needed some place to get in line.

There's a young man named Luis (ph) who works for me who's been - he's actually a partner in my firm. He's been undocumented for 18 years, and he just got his permanent residency this week because he married his high school sweetheart. He's one of those DACA recipients that Theresa talked about. There never was a line for him to get into, and he's been here since he was 13 years old from Mexico.

Now, there's a lot of those people around the country, and most Latino voters, over 67% of voters like me that are Latino that were born here, know somebody like Luis who was undocumented. That's why this is so powerful and needs to get done.

MARTIN: Let's talk a bit more about the - sort of the politics. As we said, a restrictionist approach to immigration was such a signature part of the prior administration that it should not be surprising that people who are closely associated with that administration's politics objected vehemently to the plan immediately. I'm thinking, say, like Representative Jim Jordan of Ohio, who says that the plan "rewards those who broke the law," end quote.

But it sounds to me, Chuck - like, maybe I'm wrong. Correct me if I'm wrong - that you're more worried about keeping Democrats together, Democrats and more - what? - and sort of more moderate Democrats and Democrats in more sort of vulnerable areas. Is that right?

ROCHA: That is right to a certain extent. So if you've got to break down the House and the Senate, in the Senate, we need to win one more seat to keep the majority next year. Well, guess what? There are vulnerable Democrats in places like Arizona up in two years, Nevada up in two years. In Georgia that we just won, Reverend Warnock needs to seek reelection. In Colorado - in places where the Latino vote will be important. Now, there will be consultants and political operatives that tells those vulnerable Democrats now, now, now. We don't want to get too far out here on this immigration. There's a lot of white persuadable voters who won't like this very much. And I worry that those voices will win the day.

But on the other side of that, in the House, there were 10 Republicans that won congressional seats that have more than 25% Latino population, like down in the Texas Valley or down in Miami or out in Orange County in California. Those Republicans now have a Latino population who they need to keep happy so they in turn can win reelection. Many of them are the same Republicans who voted to impeach Donald Trump. So there's good news and bad news on each side of the aisle.

MARTIN: And, Theresa, you know, what about the politics of this? The conversation that we had previously - as a person - you are the person who has worked on this issue across party lines for years. And one of the points that you've made is that there had been a consensus around this issue that the system needs to be brought into some sort of order, that it isn't, that it's completely chaotic.

As - you know, as Chuck just pointed out, there are people who have every intention of trying to regularize their status. There is no way for them to do it. Certainly - you know, employers certainly are very interested in kind of regularizing this, as are family. So that would seem to be enough kind of buckets of support to put it together. So what about it? Is that bipartisan consensus just - is it completely broken?

CARDINAL BROWN: You know, on the policy, honestly, I think that there's still consensus. And I think the important point that I would make just sort of following what Chuck said is that the moderates - the moderates of both parties, the ones who are sitting in vulnerable positions in the next election - are going to be the ones who are the key to getting this done. You know, you can hold every - if you - even if you hold every Democrat together in the Senate, you still need the vice president. And if you want to get any Republican votes, you're going to have to look at those moderate voters.

And I think that's going to be the key in both the House and the Senate. It's going to be those moderates that are probably going to drive the round of negotiations. What's it going to take to get them to get on board and stay on board with this?

The corollary, though - and this is where I think a lot of Republicans come from - is that they don't want to have to see that we don't address irregular migration for the future and, you know, 10 years from now or 15 years from now, we have another 8 to 10 million people who are undocumented in the United States, and we have to consider doing this again. That is the issue that drives a lot of them when they talk about border security. And I think that there are lots of ideas out there that can address that in a way that keeps everybody on board. You've got to get to 60 in the Senate. You've got to get to, you know, half of the House, and it has to get to the president's desk. Anything less than that - I agree with Chuck - is just failure.

MARTIN: And, Chuck, final thought from you. What's the bottom line for you and for the people whose views you're most connected to? Is it that something get done? What do you think is the bottom line?

ROCHA: We're just in a different time than we were 20 years ago. The large growth of the Latino vote that you see now written about in publications and talked about has become of age where it's a real political power. I think that's why we have a shot this time. Will we get all of this? I demand all of this, and the community demands all of this. But we'd better come up with part of this at least if you want to keep this electorate engaged in a process that they feel like they've been pulled back and forth on.

And at the end of the day, like Theresa said, these are not just numbers. When we talk about 11 million and 8 million and 3 million DACA recipients, aka the DREAMers, these are real people and real people's lives who we have educated, who are now living in our country, who are the fabric of our country, who we now have to do the right thing by them once and for all.

MARTIN: That was Chuck Rocha, Democratic strategist and former senior adviser to the Bernie Sanders presidential campaign. We also heard from Theresa Cardinal Brown, director of immigration and cross-border policy at the Bipartisan Policy Center.

Thank you both so much for speaking with us once again, and I do hope and expect that we will talk again.

CARDINAL BROWN: Happy to.

ROCHA: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.