The White House and House Democrats have included $100 billion for immigration changes in the text of the budget reconciliation package for President Biden’s Build Back Better agenda. That’s keeping the hope of a path to citizenship in the bill alive.
In the framework for the package the White House released Thursday, it set aside the funding, ”consistent with the Senate’s reconciliation rules,” to “improve our immigration system by providing long awaited relief to millions through reconciliation, and making enhancements to reduce backlogs, expand legal representation, and make the asylum system and border processing more efficient and humane.”
This will be the third attempt to include a provision allowing undocumented immigrants temporary deportation protections and work permits. The first two were rejected by Senate Parliamentarian Elizabeth MacDonough. Despite the fact that the Senate staffers’ opinions are just that—opinions—and should be considered as advice and not rules, thus far Senate Democrats don’t seem ready to ignore her.
They’re hearing about that from their House colleagues, as Gabe Ortiz wrote this week: “Now dozens of House members, including California Rep. Lou Correa, New York Rep. Adriano Espaillat, Illinois Rep. Chuy García, New York Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, and Congressional Progressive Caucus Chair Pramila Jayapal are urging Senate Democrats to champion immigrants, overrule MacDonough’s opinion with Vice President Kamala Harris as the 51st vote, and deliver permanent relief.”
“As you know, the role of the Parliamentarian is an advisory one, and the opinion of the Parliamentarian is not binding,” the lawmakers told Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer in a letter. They reminded him that “there is precedent of the Presiding Officer disregarding the opinion of the Senate Parliamentarian.” There’s also precedent—from Republicans—for firing the parliamentarian. Democrats don’t have to go that far; they can just overrule her, as their House colleagues know.
At least a few of those members have indicated they won’t vote for a reconciliation package, and/or the hard infrastructure bipartisan bill, without it. Rep. Adriano Espaillat of New York is holding out his vote on both the bipartisan hard infrastructure bill and budget reconciliation until immigration is secured in the larger bill, at least as of Thursday when House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Joe Biden were pushing House Democrats to pass that hard infrastructure bill. Reps. Chuy García of Illinois and Lou Correa of California have also said they won’t support the package without immigration.
“If there’s no immigration reform, I cannot support this bill,” García told reporters Thursday. He was refusing to help pass the hard infrastructure bill for fear that in doing so, Democrats “could lose all of our leverage in ensuring that there is an immigration relief piece in the reconciliation package.”
White House press secretary Jen Psaki, on Wednesday told reporters that both Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris “strongly supported” including that language in the framework, and are encouraging efforts to “come up with alternative ideas that might be able to make its way through the parliamentarian.” They can do better, at least privately, by Harris accepting her role in being the 51st vote to overrule the parliamentarian. For the record, neither Sen. Joe Manchin nor Sen. Kyrsten Sinema have objected to including immigration in this bill. That, like everything with them, is subject to change on a whim.
Advocates are getting as frustrated, yet remain hopeful. “One way or another, we expect immigration reform to be in the final bill and win freedom for millions of immigrants,” said Lorella Praeli, co-president of Community Change Action. America’s Voice executive director Frank Sharry applauded Biden and Pelosi for including the provision. “It’s been 35 years since we enacted major immigration legislation,” he wrote, encouraging them to get it done now.
“The public, the President, and every Democrat in Congress support modernization of our immigration system,” Sharry said. “This is a good first step that recognizes the essential role of immigrants to our economy, society and community. Now Democrats need to take the next step and deliver for the country and the millions of immigrant families who deliver for America.”