Even as a bipartisan group of senators announced an agreement that would provide young undocumented immigrants a pathway to citizenship, House Democrats are worried a final deal will concede too much to the White House on the issue of diversity visas.
House Democrats are pressuring their leadership and Senate Democrats involved in negotiations with Republicans to give no ground on eliminating the diversity visa program, which distributes 50,000 visas per year to countries where there is a low rate of immigration to the U.S. Roughly 44 percent of those participating in the program are from African countries.
Congressional Black Caucus members have called changes to diversity visas a “non-starter” and criticized Republicans for proposing to end the program, saying it reeks of racism.
The dissension in Democratic ranks poses problems for negotiators as they try to strike a balance and a bill that will gain enough votes to pass both chambers. But black and Latino House members are frustrated, particularly by the lack of diversity at the negotiating table. Sen. Bob Menendez, D-N.J., was added later to a working group of six senators, who released an agreement on Thursday that will be subject to changes as it’s shopped around to the entire Congress. And in other negotiations between the No. 2 leaders in each chamber and White House chief of staff John Kelly, all five negotiators are white men — something House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., criticized Thursday.
Republicans made clear leaving a bipartisan meeting with President Trump earlier this week that they wanted a change or elimination of diversity visas included in any deal providing a pathway to citizenship for recipients of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program that the president moved to kill in September. On Thursday, the Washington Post reported Trump attacked the program in a meeting with congressional negotiators, describing Haiti, El Salvador, and African nations as “shithole countries.”
“We know what compromise and all that means, but to eliminate this has a severe impact on the diversity of this country,” Rep. Brenda Lawrence, D-Mich., told reporters Thursday before Trump's remarks went public. “When you look at immigrants coming, are you now going to say all your immigrants coming in are going to be people not of color and not from those countries that typically carry dark skin?”
Lawrence said she and other Black Caucus members are “putting pressure on [Democratic] leadership” so those involved in negotiations “understand how important” the visa program is to them.
A number of Democrats said Thursday that they’re afraid Senate Democrats will roll over and agree to a deal that guts the program.
“That visa has provided the largest opportunities for people of color; I’m very sensitive to that,” Lawrence said. “It seems very racist to me."
“When you start talking about immigrants coming into this country, and you’re going to cut off the part that brings people of dark skin, brown skin, but you’re going to leave the ones from the white complexion [countries] — what are we doing here?” she said.
Rep. Yvette Clarke, D-N.Y., echoed Lawrence’s concern, saying diversity visas “should not even be part of a discussion.”
Asked if she thinks her Senate colleagues will vote for a deal gutting diversity visas, Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., said, “I definitely hope that’s not going to happen,” adding that protecting the program is a “priority” for her.
“People who are part of the negotiations should be people who understand the population and represent the population,” Harris said, alluding to the fact that lawmakers of color have largely been left out of major dealmaking.
Pelosi hit on the lack of diversity in her weekly presser, calling the working group that includes only Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas; Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill.; Rep. Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif.; Rep. Steny Hoyer, D-Md.; and Kelly, "the five white guys.”
"The very idea that this week they're saying, 'Oh, let's get four white guys and Gen. Kelly to come and do this,’” she said, adding that they ignored the lawmakers of color who’ve been working on this issue for years.
Rep. Filemon Vela, D-Texas, isn’t optimistic Senate Democrats will take a stand if Republicans push the diversity visa issue, pointing to history.
“On the continuing resolution back in December, Senate leadership, Democratic leadership wasn’t pushing very hard,” Vela said. “So yeah, I’m pretty nervous about that.”
Democratic Caucus Chairman Rep. Joe Crowley of New York said he too is firmly opposed to including the visa program in any deal on DACA.
“The president created this problem,” Crowley said. “He lit the fire and now he’s trying to tell the fire department how to put it out.”