A court decision that has imperiled a program for undocumented immigrants who came to the United States as children has put new urgency behind an effort in Congress to deal with immigration through the budget.
In a late Friday ruling last week, a federal judge in Texas blocked new applications for the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program. The move puts in limbo the status of tens or hundreds of thousands of other so-called Dreamers — including 50,000 new DACA applicants who had not yet been enrolled in the program.
The ruling comes as Democrats are weighing using the budget reconciliation process for an immigration package, a maneuver that needs just 50 votes but requires confirmation from the parliamentarian that the policy includes enough fiscal components to merit the move.
“Without question the DACA ruling from Judge [Andrew] Hanen in Texas really adds urgency to the need for Congress to act and I think it puts more pressure on Congress overall to provide a permanent solution here,” said Greg Chen of the American Immigration Lawyers Association.
Chen added that the legislation should include Dreamers, farmworkers, others who have lived in the U.S. for years with legal temporary status and those deemed essential workers during the pandemic.
In all, Democrats could make around 10 million people eligible for a path to citizenship — just shy of the 11 million people who would be impacted by a bill from President BidenJoe BidenJill Biden campaigns for McAuliffe in Virginia Fill the Eastern District of Virginia Biden: Those who defy Jan. 6 subpoenas should be prosecuted MORE that has stalled in Congress.
For many immigrants around the country, especially those who live in mixed status communities, immigration has become a catalyst for their political participation, which historically has skewed Democratic.
"Many states are growing their Latino participation and I think for the future of the Democratic Party, they also need to be looking at how they're going to respond to this specific need that has been going back and forth for many years, for decades, and now more than ever," said Ben Monterroso, senior adviser at Poder Latinx, a grassroots organization that focuses on Hispanic voter participation.
"We only had once, that I can remember in my fight with immigration, the opportunity to have the leadership led by a president who wants immigration reform done, a Speaker of the House who wants immigration reform done, and a leader of the Senate who wants immigration reform done," added Monterroso, who first organized Hispanic voters in the 1990s in California.
Top Democrats are leaning in on immigration, pending the Senate parliamentarian's determination on including immigration provisions through reconciliation.
"We are going to do everything we can to provide a path to citizenship for the Dreamers and many others, and you know why we're going to do it? We love America and immigrants are great for America," said Senate Majority Leader Chuck SchumerChuck SchumerHispanic organizations call for Latino climate justice in reconciliation Senate to vote next week on Freedom to Vote Act To Win 2022: Go big on reconciliation and invest in Latinx voters MORE (D-N.Y.) on Wednesday.
Still, immigrant communities are putting significant pressure on Democrats not only to respond rhetorically, but to deliver results.
"Can we even count on the Republicans? The answer is no. Can we count on the courts? The answer is no. Can we count on the Democrats? There they could still come, and I think this is the year that they can show that they are there, and no more politics are being played with the hopes, lives and expectations of our community," said Monterroso.
The internal politics of immigration in the Democratic Party have also shifted, with moderate Democratic voters much more open to immigration-friendly candidates than even five years ago.
Lawrence Benito, executive director of the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights, pointed to the 2020 election of Rep. Marie Newman (D-Ill.), a progressive who successfully primaried former Rep. Dan Lipinski (D-Ill.), a Blue Dog Democrat who represented a relatively moderate southwest Chicago district for eight terms.
"That is a testimony to the power that we built at a very local level that made an impact and if you asked Marie Newman she would say it made the difference in her election," said Benito.
A key component of that operation were Dreamers who, despite not being able to register as voters, went door-to-door seeking to politically activate their communities.
"I will put their testimony over a paid canvass operation any day. Because when you hear them at the door saying, 'I can't vote, but you can be my voice,' it motivates people to go out and participate in the electoral process," Benito said.
The risk for Democratic leaders in not delivering results is two-fold: Immigrant communities may not be as willing to participate in future elections without immigration reform, and a significant number of Democratic officials could push back from within the party.
And while reconciliation seems to be the only potential avenue for broad immigration reform, communities on the ground are largely uninterested in procedural minutiae.
"It is in the hands of the Democrats to push this. How this gets done, through reconciliation or through whatever other means, that's not really much of a discussion, just get it done," said Monterroso, whose operation is focused on Arizona, Florida and Georgia.
Republicans, however, have become increasingly vocal about the possibility of taking up immigration through reconciliation.
In an appearance on Fox News earlier this week, Sen, Lindsey GrahamLindsey Olin GrahamSenators preview bill to stop tech giants from prioritizing their own products Democrats fret as longshot candidates pull money, attention Tim Scott takes in .3 million in third quarter MORE (R-S.C.) called such a move “the dumbest idea in the history of the Senate, the history of the White House.”
And Sen. Thom TillisThomas (Thom) Roland TillisGOP rallies around Manchin, Sinema Advocates frustrated by shrinking legal migration under Biden Key debt-limit vote sparks major fight among Senate Republicans MORE (R-N.C.), also blasted the effort during a hearing earlier this week examining ways to ease immigration issues for migrant farm workers.
"I want to make it very, very clear, I'm not going to stop talking with members on the other side of the aisle who are serious about fixing this problem, and willing to accept a compromise, they can get 60 votes in the Senate, and make progress for the first time since Queen was still topping the charts," he said, in reference to the decades that have passed since Congress passed a comprehensive immigration reform bill.
But Tillis’s most recent proposal would leave behind many of the groups that Democrats are seeking to include.
In a letter with Sen. John CornynJohn CornynCornyn raises more than M for Senate GOP Is the Biden administration afraid of trade? The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - After high drama, Senate lifts debt limit MORE (R-Texas) earlier this month, Tillis proposed the Senate take up a standalone DACA bill.
The offer, which would benefit fewer than 700,000 people, would exclude potential DACA recipients who were unable to access the program during the Trump administration — a number the Migration Policy Institute estimates is as high as 1.3 million additional people.
But Senate Judiciary Chair Dick DurbinDick DurbinFill the Eastern District of Virginia Senators preview bill to stop tech giants from prioritizing their own products Democrats struggle to gain steam on Biden spending plan MORE (D-Ill.) shot back at Tillis during the same hearing, noting that Republicans had used reconciliation for immigration before.
“When the Senate was in Republican control, it overwhelmingly passed a bipartisan reconciliation bill that dramatically increased the number of immigrant green cards. So I hope we can find a pathway for a bipartisan effort,” he said.
Democrats’ odds were also buoyed by an announcement from Sen. Joe ManchinJoe ManchinMajor climate program likely to be nixed from spending package: reports Sanders, Manchin escalate fight over .5T spending bill Sanders blames media for Americans not knowing details of Biden spending plan MORE (R-W.V.) that he would back the reconciliation effort.
“Since Sen. Manchin has expressed concern over the filibuster and using reconciliation for bills, his position by definition is going to be very important here. So the fact that he is now indicating he's fine with the inclusion of immigration in reconciliation — that is a very important step; that’s a critical step,” Chen said.
Democrats have been working to make the fiscal case for using reconciliation, pointing to a 2013 Congressional Budget Office report evaluating similar immigration legislation from that year finding it would increase economic output and reduce the deficit by $700 billion over 10 years.
Still, assuming it’s permitted, Democrats can’t afford to lose any support.
Domingo Garcia, president of the League of United Latin American Citizens, said the decision shouldn’t be a politically difficult one.
“DACA is just a basic fairness and social justice issue that needs to be dealt with so we’re not leaving children and students in legal limbo,” he said.
“If we can get three or four Republicans to join Democrats that would be enough to pass it and it gives cover to moderates. It’s not a immigration bill, it’s an infrastructure bill, a budget bill. So it has a fig leaf of political protection.”