Democrats Hitching Immigration Plans to Tax and Spending Bill

Democrats are attempting to give new life to their stalled plans for changes to the nation’s immigration system by opening the way for an overhaul in a broad measure that will carry major portions of President Joe Biden’s agenda.

The Senate Budget Committee agreed this week to include immigration policy, long a divisive issue even among Democrats, in its $3.5 trillion fiscal blueprint, which the Senate plans to vote on this month. That will set up passage in the Senate later this year of a budget package with only Democratic votes -- bypassing any GOP filibuster.

That broad blueprint will contain only vague language on immigration, leaving it to the Senate Judiciary Committee to hash out the details of what will be included in the later legislation.

“It won’t be the end of the negotiation, it will be the beginning,” said Senator Tim Kaine, a Virginia Democrat.

Another Democrat on the committee, Senator Alex Padilla of California, also serves on Judiciary, but could only say at this time that any immigration bill will be “as expansive as possible.”

Challenges ahead

The yet-to-be-filled-in plan underscores just how much work lies ahead for congressional Democrats, who must stay almost entirely united on the budget blueprint and follow-on legislation dealing with immigration, the tax code, climate change, child care, Medicare and other areas.

The Senate is split 50-50 between the two political parties, with Vice President Kamala Harris able to cast a tie-breaking vote. In the House, Democrats currently have a four-vote margin.

Liberal and more centrist Democrats are divided on the specifics what to include on immigration, including how to offer a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants. Some Congressional Hispanic Caucus members, including Representative Chuy Garcia of New York, want an expansive approach but the issue also could be used as a cudgel against moderates during next year’s mid-term elections.

Biden urged lawmakers to provide more green cards to undocumented immigrants using the so-called budget reconciliation process when he met with all Senate Democrats on Wednesday. Senator Joe Manchin of West Virginia, frequently a hold-out who frustrates Democratic leaders, said he could support doing so as part of the broader package.

The details, though, are what could ultimately divide the caucus.

While Biden has called for a pathway to citizenship for roughly 11 million people living illegally in the U.S., House Speaker Nancy Pelosi opted for a pared back approach that could attract backing of moderate Democrats. The House in March passed two bills that provide legal status for migrant farm workers and a citizenship path for young undocumented immigrants known as “Dreamers.”

In the Senate, Judiciary Chairman Dick Durbin has led bipartisan talks on a similar bill that includes protections for immigrants with temporary protected status who can’t safely return to their home countries, including 130,000 “essential critical infrastructure workers.” Still, those talks have dragged on for months

No guarantee

Democrats face increasing pressure from immigration advocates who see the reconciliation package as the last opportunity to push through substantive reform.

“This is the year,” said Frank Sharry, executive director of America’s Voice, which advocates on behalf of undocumented immigrants.

Yet there’s no guarantee that Democrats could get immigration passed through reconciliation, thanks to procedural rules.

To qualify for Senate passage with only 51 votes, rather than the 60 required for most legislation, any proposal must directly relate to federal revenue, and would be subject to strict rules that would force changes or the outright elimination of provisions deemed unrelated.

Senate Democrats earlier this year failed to meet the test on another key priority, when the Senate parliamentarian rejected a proposal to raise the federal minimum wage to $15 an hour as part of pandemic-relief legislation.

Some aides and advocacy groups argue that any pathway for citizenship would likely be associated with a fine and a green card application fee, giving an immigration overhaul a fiscal component. And during President George W. Bush’s administration, the Congressional Budget Office found providing legal status to some undocumented immigrants would bring in more government revenue, a conclusion that Democrats are pointing to now.

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