If immigration-reform advocates hope to pass their bill, the thinking goes, they’ll need to make certain concessions to win Republican votes—more border security, a tougher path to citizenship, the rapid establishment of an e-verify system. The proposal “will have to be adjusted, because [GOP members] are very suspicious about the willingness of the government to enforce the laws now,” Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., one of the bill’s authors, told a conservative talk-show host Tuesday. This logic assumes that even if House Speaker John Boehner needs Democrats’ votes to pass the bill, their support is a fait accompli.
That’s a risky assumption, it turns out. The Congressional Black Caucus, whose 43 House members represent more than 20 percent of the Democratic caucus, is still on the fence. It wants to restore the Diversity Visa lottery, a program stricken from the Senate bill to appease Republicans. Long a target of GOP lawmakers, the lottery allocated 55,000 permanent-resident visas each year to countries that have low levels of immigration to the United States; just under half go to African nations.
Senate negotiators replaced the Diversity Visa with a merit-based system that awards some weight to underrepresented countries, but the CBC says it’s still not sure this would give fair treatment to African immigrants. Now the black legislators are threatening to withhold their support from the immigration bill entirely if the diversity program, or a strong alternative, is not included. It’s a “deal-breaker,” says Rep. Yvette Clarke, D-N.Y. Rep. Hakeem Jeffries, D-N.Y., has termed it “a red line for the CBC.” Those two and Rep. Steven Horsford, D-Nev., cochair the group’s immigration-reform task force.
Members of the Black Caucus say they’re looking to Sen. Chuck Schumer of New York, the leading Democrat in the “Gang of Eight” that devised the upper chamber’s bill, for a solution—and that he’s been receptive to their concerns. But Schumer seems intent on selling black members on the new merit-based visa program. “The number of Africans, because they have so decreased under [the Diversity Visa program], will increase, and that’s not to mention the number of Caribbean Americans who will first become [registered provisional immigrants] and then citizens under the bill,” Schumer said at a recent Christian Science Monitor breakfast. “We think it’s a fair and balanced bill in that regard.”
The system would award points based on education; employment; family in the United States; entrepreneurship; demand in an applicant’s profession; civic involvement; English-language ability; age; and country of origin. Half of the visas would go to high-skilled workers and the remainder to low-skilled ones. An aide to Schumer says the senator has not ruled out making changes, but he believes an explanation of how the new program works will address CBC concerns.
The caucus is conducting its own analysis of how African and Caribbean immigrants would fare under the new merit-based system, relying in part on the expertise of Michael Fix, a senior vice president at the Migration Policy Institute. He says it’s difficult to predict how Africans will do under the merit-based system in the long run, but there would be an “absolute loss” of visas in the short term because of the several-year gap between the time that the Diversity Visa program is phased out and the new merit-based system begins.
If the Congressional Black Caucus isn’t convinced that African and Caribbean immigrants will fare well under the new system, its members will press Schumer—who carved out an additional 10,500 visas for Irish immigrants—to amend the program. They need his help because their leverage in the Senate is limited: Sen. William “Mo” Cowan, D-Mass., does not have a seat on the Judiciary Committee that will make the first changes to the bill. The other black senator, Republican Tim Scott of South Carolina, is not a CBC member.
The Black Caucus will face other pressures to oppose the bill. The African American Leadership Council is pressing the CBC to fight the measure because it believes the increased flow of low-skilled workers will depress the wage and employment opportunities for black Americans. “We would like for them to slow down and consider all the research that shows this would have devastating consequences,” says Leah Durant, an AALC coalition member and the executive director of Progressives for Immigration Reform, which supports lower immigration levels. So far, the CBC has largely ignored advocates like these, and a poll out last week by the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, conducted by Lake Research Partners, showed that two-thirds of black voters support immigration reform with a path to citizenship.
If the CBC does ultimately oppose an immigration bill, this stance would put it in the unusual position of clashing with the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, normally a close ally. (Those two groups and the Asian Pacific American Caucus often vote in a bloc.) “There are people who would love to see a wall constructed between the Latino leadership in the Congress and in the country and African-Americans,” says Rep. Emanuel Cleaver, D-Mo. He pledged to fight those efforts. To that end, lawmakers drafting the House’s immigration bill (including two members of the Hispanic Caucus) are seeking input from their colleagues, including CBC members, according to a Democratic aide with knowledge of the talks. But if the House eventually takes up the Senate measure with its merit-visa provision, leaders may have to do without 43 crucial votes.
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article incorrectly said that African nations receive over half of the visas awarded through the Diversity Visa lottery; in fact, they receive just under half.