House Democrats push for path to citizenship in COVID-19 relief

Lawmakers want legal protections for DACA holders and other undocumented immigrants in the next aid bill

A new citizen looks over paperwork at a naturalization ceremony in Philadelphia in February 2020.  (Tanvi Misra/CQ Roll Call)
A new citizen looks over paperwork at a naturalization ceremony in Philadelphia in February 2020. (Tanvi Misra/CQ Roll Call)
Posted February 1, 2021 at 12:16pm

A group of 100 lawmakers urged House leadership to include a pathway to citizenship for undocumented essential workers in an upcoming COVID-19 relief package.

The effort signals a push by Democrats to prioritize protections for immigrants in massive coronavirus relief legislation, following years of failed attempts to pass comprehensive immigration reform. 

[Menendez: Passing immigration bill has ‘herculean’ challenges]

In a letter Saturday led by the Congressional Hispanic Caucus and addressed to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, lawmakers said roughly 5 million essential workers do not have legal immigration status, including more than 330,000 with temporary protections under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program and Temporary Protected Status. They include workers critical to the U.S. food supply, like farmworkers and grocery store employees, as well as teachers and first responders, the letter said.

"Undocumented essential workers have stepped up to serve our country in a time of crisis and should be able to apply for U.S. citizenship," lawmakers wrote. 

They also touted the economic benefits to legalization, claiming that it would bolster the U.S. economy and ultimately increase wages across the board. 

"The COVID-19 pandemic has shown us that essential workers, including immigrants, are the backbone of our country and will be the catalyst for our economic recovery," Congressional Hispanic Caucus Chairman Raul Ruiz, D-Calif., said in a statement. "As Congress works on the next COVID-19 economic recovery package, it is critical to include these essential workers to ensure our country gets back on track as quickly as possible."

Rep. Joaquin Castro, D-Texas, the former CHC chairman, wrote on Twitter that he was "working on citizenship legislation" and expressed optimism that legalization will be included in a coronavirus relief package. 

A spokesperson for Pelosi, D-Calif., didn't immediately return a request for comment Monday.

Democrats are hoping to include legalization protections in President Joe Biden's proposed $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief bill, which would include direct payments to Americans and funds for coronavirus vaccine distribution. 

On his first day in office, Biden put forward a proposal for a sweeping immigration reform bill that would provide a path to legal status for 11 million undocumented immigrants in the U.S., among other changes. 

[Despite travel ban repeal, Trump orders still keep immigrants out]

But immigration legislation could face tough odds in the Senate, where Democrats would need at least 10 Republican votes to overcome a filibuster. By ramming immigration reform into a COVID-19 relief bill, which could pass with a straight majority through budget reconciliation, a legalization program may have a better shot at becoming reality, though political divisions and procedural rules could still derail the effort.