Democrats grasping at straws on immigration

A second ruling by the Senate parliamentarian has Democrats grasping at straws over how to include some form of immigration relief in their sweeping reconciliation package, as activists pressure them to do more to change the upper chamber’s rules.

Senate parliamentarian Elizabeth MacDonough on Wednesday ruled against a Democratic proposal to offer permanent residency to millions of undocumented immigrants, the second time in a week she’s shot down a Democratic proposal that would have provided security for the population.

The decision was a stinging blow to Democrats that left them with few options, though some were moving toward a plan C that would involve granting parole to groups of undocumented immigrants.


“The next one in line is this parole option, which is not as ambitious as the first two, but it also brings relief to a significant number of people that are here without any documentation and allows them the ability to work,” said Rep. Adriano EspaillatAdriano de Jesus Espaillat CabralTop Latino group endorses Padilla for full Senate term Ilhan Omar to Biden: 'Deliver on your promise to cancel student debt' Democrats grasping at straws on immigration MORE (D-N.Y.), who along with Reps. Jesús García (D-Ill.) and Lou CorreaJose (Lou) Luis CorreaTop Latino group endorses Padilla for full Senate term Democrats weigh changes to drug pricing measure to win over moderates Democrats grasping at straws on immigration MORE (D-Calif.) has vowed to vote “no” on any reconciliation bill without immigration provisions.

This option would grant temporary immigration and work benefits to potentially millions of people, but not a direct path to citizenship.

While immigrant groups are likely to balk at what they consider a potential trap into “second-class” citizenship, the temporary nature of parole would directly address one of MacDonough's main concerns with the two permanent residency plans.

The first proposal that MacDonough struck down would have reportedly granted green cards to as many as 8 million immigrants, while the second would have covered around 6.7 million people, by most estimates.

In her Wednesday ruling, MacDonough made clear that she considers granting millions of green cards a significant policy change that's incompatible with the rules of reconciliation. Those rules prevent Republicans from filibustering the package.

Democrats could technically override MacDonough's decision with support from their entire Senate caucus, but party leaders already need unanimous support for the full reconciliation package, and are unlikely to force a vote on immigration or Senate rules on their moderate members.

Senate Majority Whip Dick DurbinDick DurbinSenators preview bill to stop tech giants from prioritizing their own products Democrats struggle to gain steam on Biden spending plan Press: Where's Merrick Garland when we need him? MORE (D-Ill.), who has long led Democrats' immigration reform pushes in the Senate, said Wednesday his caucus will continue to explore language on the matter that could fit in the bill.

“Disappointed by today’s decision by the Parliamentarian, but the push for immigration via reconciliation continues. There’s too much at stake,” tweeted Durbin.

Immigrant advocates were stunned by the speed in which MacDonough revealed her second ruling, but some called for patience in a process they knew would be a bumpy ride.

“The main thing is that like last time, obituaries are premature. The senators have a plan to work with the parliamentarian on other options and there are other options beyond that,” said Douglas Rivlin, communications director at America's Voice.

In MacDonough’s ruling she again called permanent residency “a life-long change in circumstances the value of which vastly outweighs its budgetary impact.”


García said the goal was still finding “ways to protect people so that they can continue to work, they can continue to travel, to live in peace, and have a shot down the road when we're able to take this subject up.”

He also offered support for the reconciliation package despite his pledge to vote against it without an immigration measure.

“This is still a vehicle that offers possibilities — now I'm talking about reconciliation — to protect people in the immigrant community, and I think millions of people,” he said.

Some advocates expressed disappointment in the parliamentarian’s ruling, which again focused on the number of people who would gain residency through the move while offering little on why the proposal did not meet the financial requirements needed to use reconciliation.

Lawmakers had hoped to sidestep the issue by changing the registry date — a sort of statute of limitations for those who entered the U.S.  

“That to me is a little shocking because the registry law is already in existence. It's just a matter of changing the date. It's not like creating a whole new program like the legalization packages would have and it would have a significant beneficial impact on the economy,” said Shev Dalal-Dheini with the American Immigration Lawyers Association, who called the ruling “disappointing.”

“Other options people were looking into are similar so I'm not sure we can get past her rulings. Which maybe the next plan is to not worry about her ruling, but I don't know what they're going to do with that,” she said, a nod to comments from progressive Democrats to view the rulings only as a recommendation.

Still, immigration advocates both within and outside Congress are wary that the issue could be swept under the rug, as the fight over other aspects of the reconciliation bill takes precedence.

And advocates are worried the reconciliation package could be a brief window for immigration relief, a window that might not open again for years.

“It looks really bleak. It looks like it will require many years before it can gel again,” said García.

A final reconciliation bill without some form of immigration reform would confirm fears that immigrant priorities are taken for granted when the iron gets hot, but many Democrats could still feel compelled to support it.

“I know that it's a difficult position to be in, and to have to choose between all of the great things in the Build Back Better plan, all the social programs, all of the equity initiatives, all of the investment that that act would bring to our communities,” said García.

“But at the same time that has to be weighed against the fact that the Congress is turning its back on the immigrant community,” he added.

Democrats could also get hit at the polls, say some advocates.

“In the end, Democrats who are in charge of both houses of Congress will get the credit if they succeed and the blame if they do not,” said Rivlin.

Jordain Carney contributed to this story.