Democrats weigh reconciliation bill for immigration action

The process being eyed to advance the infrastructure package may also help make progress on stagnant immigration policy

Speaker Nancy Pelosi, joined by other House Democratic members on March 18, discusses two bills to help certain immigrants: so-called Dreamers and undocumented farmworkers. (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call)
Speaker Nancy Pelosi, joined by other House Democratic members on March 18, discusses two bills to help certain immigrants: so-called Dreamers and undocumented farmworkers. (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call)
Posted April 7, 2021 at 6:00am

Another budget reconciliation bill is likely on the horizon, and Democrats are eyeing the measure as a vehicle for a policy priority long mired in partisan disagreement: immigration overhaul.

In the coming months, congressional Democrats and the White House could use a budgetary maneuver requiring a simple Senate majority to advance a sweeping infrastructure package. The possibility became more serious Monday when the Senate parliamentarian ruled that a revised budget resolution could potentially be used to pass another reconciliation bill.

[Second filibuster-proof maneuver OK’d by Senate parliamentarian]

Democrats used a fiscal 2021 budget resolution earlier this year as the vehicle for a $1.86 trillion coronavirus relief package.

It’s far from certain that any immigration provisions could make it into another parliamentarian-approved reconciliation bill, and the comprehensive overhaul of the immigration system backed by the White House is even less likely.

But, spurred on by immigration advocates desperate for legislative action, Democrats plan to try.

“We think we can make a case about the budget impacts of immigration in our country, and we are going to try to do that,” Speaker Nancy Pelosi said on a call with Asian American Pacific Islander leaders last week, referencing the Byrd rule, which excludes nonbudgetary provisions from reconciliation bills.

The legislative push reflects the reality in a narrowly divided Congress that has struggled for years to reach any consensus on immigration policy. The current situation at the U.S.-Mexico border, with the government scrambling to accommodate thousands of unaccompanied migrant children who have crossed in recent weeks, has both heightened those divisions and underscored the need to take some sort of action.

“I think that there is a substantial appetite for doing something in this space,” said a Democratic aide familiar with the budget negotiations, adding he’s spoken with multiple Democratic senators about including immigration provisions in a future reconciliation bill, including Judiciary Chair Richard J. Durbin of Illinois and Budget Committee member Alex Padilla of California.

Sen. Bob Menendez, the New Jersey Democrat sponsoring the comprehensive immigration bill backed by the White House, “will not foreclose any tool that will ultimately allow Democrats to give a pathway to citizenship to as many undocumented immigrants as possible,” said his spokesman Robert Julien.

In March, the House passed two immigration measures to provide a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants. One was intended for those brought to the U.S. as children and temporary protected status holders, and the other was for undocumented agricultural farmworkers. Neither measure is likely to get 60 votes in the Senate.

[House passes immigration bill to help ‘Dreamers’]

Those provisions, plus a path to citizenship for essential workers, are the focus of the legislative push.

“We feel very strongly as a progressive caucus that there should be a pathway to citizenship for essential workers, so I imagine that will be an area where we try to ensure that we push on that front,” Congressional Progressive Caucus Chair Pramila Jayapal, D-Wash., said on a press call last week. “We think that there is good reason to believe this falls within the reconciliation guideline.”

It’s not unprecedented for reconciliation legislation to touch on immigration. The 1996 welfare overhaul law, which passed through budget reconciliation, restricted the eligibility of certain groups of immigrants for federal benefits.

Any successful attempt to include immigration-related provisions in a future reconciliation bill would likely make government benefits such as stimulus checks available to immigrant populations, said Molly Reynolds, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. She’s less sure about broader provisions to provide a pathway to citizenship to immigrant groups.

“For a lot of the bigger, more straightforward immigration policy changes, I would be somewhat skeptical that those would fit in the confines of the Byrd rule,” she said.

She noted, however, that majority parties in recent years have been more aggressive in using reconciliation to make major policy changes. She said those policy changes have a stronger chance of making it into extremely broad reconciliation packages that incorporate instructions from several committees, as the latest pandemic relief bill did.

“If someone says, ‘We might fold a provision related to making stimulus payments accessible to certain immigration communities in this next reconciliation bill,’ you could put that in a big bill that is mostly infrastructure given the kind of setups that have lots of committees all doing the work,” she said.

Republicans, who focused their criticism of the latest pandemic relief package on provisions they viewed as unrelated to COVID-19 recovery, staunchly oppose any attempts to weave liberal policy priorities into an upcoming infrastructure package.

“It would come as no surprise if Democrats tried to convince themselves and the Senate Parliamentarian that somehow amnesty for illegal immigrants belongs in a budget reconciliation bill,” House Budget ranking member Jason Smith, R-Mo., said in a statement. “They clearly have little concern with throwing any number of their liberal wish list items into a reconciliation package in the hopes of jamming their agenda through Congress and radically changing the country.”

Democrats are largely undeterred by such criticisms, hoping to take advantage of their current control of the White House and Congress.

Padilla, who was appointed to the Senate in January and chairs the Judiciary Committee’s Immigration and Citizenship panel, “is exploring all options to include immigration provisions in a future reconciliation package and thinks there is a strong case to make sure that they are included,” according to a statement from his office.

Immigration advocates, impatient for change after the Trump administration’s hard-line approach to immigration, want lawmakers to consider any tool available to make headway on the issue, whether that involves overruling the Senate parliamentarian or nixing the filibuster altogether.

“Those are all tools that Democrats should seriously consider using to pass citizenship, because we have seen how Republicans are unwilling to pass anything,” said Juliana Macedo do Nascimento, state and local policy manager at United We Dream, an organization that advocates for immigrant youth.

“We are using every tool at our disposal to get this done. We’re asking Senate Democrats to do the same.”

Jennifer Shutt contributed to this report.