Senator Dick Durbin
By Ray O’Hanlon
On June 27, 2013, then vice president Joe Biden presided from the chair during a Senate vote on the Border Security, Economic Opportunity, and Immigration Modernization Act.
As vice president, Biden would have the tie breaking vote. He would not need to exercise it. The bill passed by a wide majority, 68 to 32.
Sign up to The Irish Echo Newsletter
The United States Senate had approved McCain-Kennedy, or as some preferred to term it, Kennedy-McCain.
This week, Joe Biden gets another chair – the one behind the Resolute Desk in the Oval Office. And he is intent on giving the immigration reform proposals of two senators – who died on the same date nine years apart from the same type of brain cancer – a new lease on life.
The spirits of John McCain and Ted Kennedy will be with the 46th president as he embarks on a term like few others.
The bigger questions will be the will of living members of the Senate and House of Representatives. It was in the latter that the 2013 s0-called “Gang of Eight” bill died.
Biden is promising immediate action on a comprehensive overhaul of an immigration system that was fundamentally changed (and that is putting it mildly) by four years of a Trump administration that was hostile to immigration and immigrants in every category, legal included.
As Jeff Jacoby wrote recently in the Boston Globe: “It can be hard to remember now, but Trump succeeded a president who was, for most of his time in office, the harshest enforcer of immigration laws in US history. Barack Obama’s administration expelled so many undocumented immigrants that he was bitterly labeled the ‘deporter in chief’ by the National Council of La Raza, a leading Hispanic advocacy organization. Yet so extreme has Trump’s anti-immigrant animus been, and so relentlessly has it been executed, that his predecessor in retrospect seems almost moderate.
“Obama, after all, only targeted immigrants who were here illegally. Trump has gone after them all.”
For Biden, changing immigration law could well be akin to putting the Trump juggernaut into reverse without the benefit of a clutch.
So no easy task ahead for the incoming incumbent who, according to reports, will unveil his reform bill on day one of his presidency and include in it an up to eight year path to legalization for the undocumented and illegal.
As the Guardian newspaper recently reported, “fixing chronically broken statutes while reversing more than 400 of Donald Trump’s immigration-related executive actions requires time, resources and in many cases bipartisan support, a tall order for the incoming administration.”
The Guardian reported continued: “Trump’s single term has represented a reign of terror for many immigrants, as the executive branch has bullishly pursued legally dubious protocols with devastating consequences. From the White House’s bully pulpit, Trump has deployed constant vitriol against immigrants of color, whom he has described as ‘criminals, drug dealers, rapists’ and ‘the worst of the worst.'”
Some things will be relatively easy for Biden to accomplish with day one executive orders. Securing comprehensive immigration reform – described in a recent report in The Hill newspaper as being “one of Washington’s biggest white whales” – will be a far more difficult task, even with a Democratic majority in both houses of Congress.
In the Senate, where the immigration debate will be especially crucial, any bill will need sixty votes to pass muster. That is tough, though doable.
But even with support from some Republicans there will be those who will be potentially frightened off support for full comprehensive reform by cries of the A Word —- Amnesty.
There will be rapid action by Biden on the likes of travel bans affecting Muslim countries, on behalf of the “Dreamers,” and children who were separated from their parents at the southern border. There is a House bill already in the the works that would provide protection for undocumented immigrants deemed essential workers.
But comprehensive immigration reform, the kind that even considers the undocumented Irish, is the big goal. And that will take time and negotiation.
With their recent win in the Georgia Senate races the Democrats will have a Senate majority by dint of the deciding vote of Vice President Kamala Harris.
But if her vote is actually required that will just signal failure. Sufficient Republican senators will need to be supportive. Encouragingly, several veterans of previous reform efforts have already signaled a willingness to take part in serious debate.
Such debate will be steered by Senator Dick Durbin. The Illinois Democrat is poised to take the gavel of the Senate Judiciary Committee.
Durbin, a member of the 2013 Gang of Eight, will approach comprehensive immigration reform cautiously and deliberately, guided perhaps by the spirits of Ted Kennedy and John McCain.