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As Biden Shifts On Immigration, Some Advocates See Him Giving Up Without A Fight

President Biden rolled out a proposal to overhaul the nation's immigration system on his first day in office.

But on Day 100, he shifted to talk about a more targeted, pragmatic approach.

It left some advocates feeling abandoned.

"He said in his speech ... 'Oh, I fulfilled my promise. Now it's off my hands. The Congress now needs to pass,' " said Gema Lowe, an undocumented organizer with the group Movimiento Cosecha. "So he's washing his hands by saying that ... instead of fighting and putting pressure to pass a bill, not just introducing the bill."

In his first joint address to Congress last week, Biden reupped his call to pass his sweeping immigration overhaul. But at the same time he conceded the odds were stacked against the proposal getting enough Republican support to pass.

He urged Congress to approve smaller measures to protect farmworkers and people brought to the country illegally as children, which both already passed in the House.

"If you don't like my plan, let's at least pass what we all agree on," Biden said. "Congress needs to pass legislation this year to finally secure protection for DREAMers, the young people who have only known America as their home."

The line was met with large applause from members inside, but outside the halls of Congress, feelings were mixed.

Some like Lowe saw it as Biden giving up on protections for many of the 11 million undocumented immigrants in the country, but Ali Noorani of the National Immigration Forum saw it as recognizing the realities of current Washington politics.

"The balancing act here is between the art of what is necessary and the art of what is possible," Noorani said.

The White House doesn't see it as an either/or situation. As Biden said, he remains committed to his comprehensive plan as a way to address thorny issues that Congress has fought over for decades. But in the meantime, he wants to move on legislation to protect DREAMers and farmworkers, measures that have drawn bipartisan support in the past.

Democratic Rep. Zoe Lofgren of California, who was involved in crafting those bills, insists her party is not giving up on the broader package. But she said there is no reason not to get parts of it done in the meantime.

"Over the years, there's been an effort to do top-to-bottom reform to the exclusion of other, more limited measures," she said. "And the end result is nothing has ever passed."

Immigration activists march near the White House on April 30 to demand more immigration action from President Biden.
Nicholas Kamm / AFP via Getty Images
AFP via Getty Images
Immigration activists march near the White House on April 30 to demand more immigration action from President Biden.

It was never going to be simple to pass a big overhaul in such a divided Congress. But allies of Biden and the Democrats say they must act now, while the party controls both the House and the Senate and the White House.

"I strongly believe — and it's the belief of many of the people who are working on this issue — that this cannot be another 'let's wait until there is a better time,' because unfortunately, there never is a better time," said Sergio Gonzales, a former adviser to then-Sen. Kamala Harris who's now director of the advocacy group Immigration Hub.

Next week, Biden plans to have lawmakers come to the White House to talk about his multitrillion-dollar jobs and infrastructure proposal.

Noorani says Biden will soon have to demonstrate that he's willing to put the same kind of political muscle behind getting something done on immigration.

"After infrastructure gets off the table, we need to make sure that immigration is the next issue on the couch at the Oval Office," he said. "And we're not there yet."

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Franco Ordoñez is a White House Correspondent for NPR's Washington Desk. Before he came to NPR in 2019, Ordoñez covered the White House for McClatchy. He has also written about diplomatic affairs, foreign policy and immigration, and has been a correspondent in Cuba, Colombia, Mexico and Haiti.