WASHINGTON, D.C. — Sen. Alex Padilla (D-CA) is expected to negotiate immigrant relief into a bipartisan immigration bill with Senate Republicans.
“We haven’t given assignments yet,” Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-IL) said on Thursday afternoon about the working group for the bill.
But behind the scenes, Senate aides point to Padilla as the implicit champion of immigrant relief in the current Congress.
Padilla’s Republican counterparts at the negotiating table for the bipartisan bill are Sens. John Cornyn (TX) and Thom Tillis (NC). Cornyn is a longtime border hawk, preoccupied with enforcing current immigration laws, and he has only grown more hawkish over time. Tillis supports recapturing unused green cards, which makes him the closest thing to an immigration moderate in today’s Senate.
“If Padilla doesn’t step up, the best immigrants can hope for is a modest green card recapture component paired with a border enforcement spend from hell,” said one senior Senate aide in leadership.
So far there is no public indication that Padilla —who was appointed by California Gov. Gavin Newsom in 2020 to replace then-Sen. Kamala Harris when she became vice president— is stepping up to the task of fighting for relief for the millions of immigrants Democrats promised to help on the campaign trail in 2020.
In the decades since Congress last passed a large bill focused on immigration relief, immigrants have mostly walked away with nothing but broken promises from Congress. The current legislative session appears to be no different.
“Nothing yet,” Padilla quickly muttered when pressed Thursday by Latino Rebels for an update from the working group.
One-sentence answers to the Capitol press have become the hallmark of Padilla’s approach to the topic of immigrant relief.
During last year’s push to include immigrant relief in the Democrats’ budget reconciliation bill, Senate leadership often pointed to Padilla as the leader in the emotionally charged immigration policy space, which made sense: Padilla was hand-picked by leadership during this Congress to lead the powerful immigration subcommittee of the Senate Judiciary Committee that Durbin chairs.
“We’re working on it” has been Padilla’s standard line to reporters for months on end. When Senate Parliamentarian Elizabeth McDonough blocked the path toward including immigrant relief in the bill late last year, Padilla frequently assured reporters with another one-liner: “It’s not over yet.”
Padilla is now positioned to be the fall guy again on a Senate stalling strategy to convince immigrants that Democrats are doing their best to secure the relief they promised in 2020.
“He led a great hearing,” said a Senate aide involved in the subcommittee Padilla convened on March 15. “Leading an immigration bill that actually passes is a much heavier lift.”
Sen. Bob Menendez (D-NJ), the senior Latino lawmaker in the upper chamber of Congress, is not optimistic that significant immigrant relief will pass in the current legislative session. He’s been down this road before. As the sole Latino Democratic Senator for years, Menendez has been dragged into countless immigration negotiations that went nowhere.
With the election of Ben Ray Luján (D-NM) and Catherine Cortez Masto (D-NV) along with Padilla’s appointment in 2020, Menendez’s burden of being the sole Latino face of immigration relief in the Senate was suddenly lifted.
“I think we have to be honest with the community,” said Menendez. “It’s May. We don’t have a reconciliation package, which was really our only vehicle, assuming we could get the votes to set aside the position of the parliamentarian. We don’t have any Republicans at all who want to engage in any comprehensive immigration reform. Unless you get legislative relief, there’s very little executive relief we can get from the President.”
Padilla disagrees. While the Senator avoids multi-sentence conversations with reporters in the Senate hallways, he did release a statement this week calling on President Joe Biden to help immigrants through executive orders, which many immigration advocacy organizations, including Immigration Hub, have been pushing for.
Joined my colleagues today at the White House to continue urging the President to take executive action to protect Dreamers, TPS holders and hardworking immigrants in the U.S. https://t.co/YCPgJ9Guxw
— Senator Alex Padilla (@SenAlexPadilla) May 5, 2022
“As our nation faces multiple challenges domestically and abroad, we still have a responsibility to fix our broken immigration system,” read the May 4 statement. “Today, we renewed our call for the Biden administration to use its existing legal authority to protect Dreamers, TPS holders, and hardworking immigrant families who have spent decades living in and contributing to our country.”
The White House did not reply to Padilla’s tweet or to Latino Rebels’ request for comment on any executive action for immigrant relief that the President is willing to take. President Biden has met twice with the Hispanic Caucus in recent weeks, with lawmakers from the House and Senate emerging from both meetings calling on the White House to unilaterally act to help immigrants.
Meanwhile, the working group of Sens. Durbin, Cornyn, Tillis, and Padilla continues to meet on a bipartisan immigration reform bill, most recently on Thursday.
“We’re in the discussion phases,” said Tillis, the moderate Republican in the working group. “A lot of people out there are talking about proposals. They’re lazy reporters because there’s no proposals yet.”
Menendez sees the working group as unlikely to achieve much. “If anything, that would be a little bite at something, maybe,” said Menendez. “But I gotta be honest with you: Republicans want the issue more than they want the solution to the challenges of immigration. Social security used to be the third rail of politics. Republicans have made immigration the third rail of politics. They use it as a weapon, not as a legitimate effort to try to deal with the legitimate immigration questions.”
Republican Senators seemed to confirm Menendez’s suspicions when asked about immigration relief by Latino Rebels.
Asked what the GOP was willing to do for legal immigrants, Republican Senators responded with diatribes about border enforcement that had nothing to do with, for example, green card backlog reform, Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (known as DACA), or provisions to welcome immigrants with advanced degrees in the fields of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics.
Sen. Josh Hawley (R-MO) even went so far as to suggest a decrease in the H1-B program offering entry to immigrants who can fill specific jobs that the citizen job market cannot. This could signal a return to restrictionist immigration policies if Democrats fail to keep their majorities in the House and Senate after November’s midterm elections.
“It’s now or nothing,” said a Senate leadership aide who has worked with Padilla and his staff on immigration issues. “If we can’t get anything through for immigrants now, it could be a decade or more before the opportunity rises again.”
Democratic aides are quick to point out that Padilla is a prolific speaker on immigration matters with a compelling personal story to tell. But he has yet to find his footing in legislative negotiations in the Senate. Durbin, Padilla’s mentor, seems to believe in him. The question for many is whether the freshman from California believes in himself enough to lead on immigration reform.
Pablo Manríquez is the Washington correspondent for Latino Rebels. Twitter: @PabloReports