Reuters – President Joe Biden’s hopes of working with Congressional Democrats to find a legislative solution to the rising numbers of immigrant asylum seekers on the US southern border will depend heavily on moderates like Texas Representative Henry Cuellar.
Cuellar, one of the most conservative House Democrats, wasn’t shy about warning the new Biden administration that it is moving too quickly to reverse some of former President Donald Trump’s strict immigration policies.
“If you don’t stop this flow like I told the White House folks when I was with them, what’s your endgame? … You don’t know, ”said the Mexican-American representative in an interview.
Last month, around 168,000 migrants were picked up by border guards between ports of entry along the US-Mexico border. This is the highest monthly number since March 2001.
The 65-year-old son of migrant farm workers is one of the few democrats to represent border communities that sometimes fail to keep up with their party.
Democrats control both Houses of Congress by a very small majority, giving the Party House and Senate immense power to dictate the outcome of any legislative effort.
A bipartisan group of lawmakers is working to bail out the House of Representatives’ immigration laws passed in March, facing the Republican opposition in the Senate, where their rules make it easier for the minority party to block laws.
The House bills would give legal status to a large group of immigrants who were brought to the United States as children years ago and some immigrant farm workers. The focus of the talks is on expanding the bills to include even more workers and overcoming what many have called the crisis on the southern border.
Cuellar, whose Texas district hugs the banks of the Rio Grande just across from Mexico, said Biden should reform, not scrap, one of Trump’s most controversial initiatives.
This policy, known as the “Stay In Mexico” program, sends Central American asylum seekers to Mexico, where conditions are dangerous as they await decisions by the US immigration courts.
Like influential progressives in the house, Cuellar condemned Trump’s policies of separating migrant children from their families. He also believes in the merits of former President Barack Obama’s U.S. investments in Central America, curbed by Trump, that funded civil society and economic development.
2022 ELECTIONS LOOM LARGE
Whether the bitterly divided Congress can pass a reform bill this year will have a huge impact on the roughly 11 million illegal immigrants living in the United States who have either arrived without visas or have exceeded them.
It could also have profound implications for Biden’s presidency and whether Democrats can hold onto their majorities in the 2022 congressional election when the president’s party usually loses its seats.
Republicans are already positioning immigration as a “wedge problem” for voters.
“While some Republicans will certainly look for possible areas of compromise, this will not stop the vast majority from using border security like a club against their opponents,” one Republican strategist predicted in 2022.
Cuellar’s district, which includes Laredo and roughly 78% Latinos, is a microcosm of the complexity of immigration.
The economy depends on dynamic cross-border trade. Business leaders shocked to hear some Republican politicians dangle the idea of closing the border.
Voters, from ranchers to school administrators, have complained about property damage by migrants and raised concerns about drug smugglers crossing the border, Cuellar said.
All of this explains why Cuellar and like-minded lawmakers are stressing border crossings containment, even if the progressive wing of the Democratic Party is pushing for a more welcoming tone.
Arizona representative Raul Grijalva, a member of the Progressive Caucus of Congress, said he had heard complaints from moderate Democrats in Congress who feared a liberal message on immigration would scare voters.
They want Democrats to emphasize “security and enforcement,” Grijalva said, adding that a balance is needed between “deportation and humane treatment”.
“We’ve had the borderline enforcement philosophy for more than four years and it hasn’t worked,” he said.
Another border democrat with a modest track record of working on the immigration compromise is Senator Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona, who voted against stimulus checks for undocumented workers.
Matt House, former adjutant to the Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer, stressed the importance of moderates in the struggle for immigration law.
But he added, “It’s so easy to predict that it will collapse. Almost everything else does. “
(Reporting by Richard Cowan; Editing by Scott Malone and Aurora Ellis)