Divisions among Democrats threaten immigration plan

Progressives, moderates debate downsized options for budget package

Members of the immigrant advocacy organization CASA demonstrate outside the Capitol in September. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Members of the immigrant advocacy organization CASA demonstrate outside the Capitol in September. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Posted November 3, 2021 at 2:11pm

Democrats’ efforts to include immigration relief in their sprawling social spending bill face an uncertain future amid divisions between party progressives and moderates over which policies should be included in the final package.

On Wednesday afternoon, House Democrats released a revised version of their plan, one that would make undocumented immigrants who entered the U.S. before 2011 eligible for temporary “parole” protections but not provide a pathway to citizenship.

Senators are gearing up to pitch a similar plan to Parliamentarian Elizabeth MacDonough, who has already shot down two previous efforts to include immigration relief in the budget reconciliation package. 

The latest text reflects changes lawmakers made after moderate Democrats aired concerns about voting on policies that might not make it into the final version of the plan. Only provisions deemed “strictly budgetary in nature” are allowed in Senate reconciliation bills, which can pass with a simple majority.

House Democrats had previously weighed including a "registry" provision that would allow immigrants who have been in the country since 2010, and who have shown “good moral character,” to apply to become permanent residents, but MacDonough has rejected that proposal.

“We want to make sure that immigration reform is what can actually pass into law,” Rep. Stephanie Murphy, D-Fla., told reporters. “Anything short of what can clear the parliamentarian in the Senate process is promising false hope to immigrants and it's cruel and unusual.”

In a letter Tuesday to Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Murphy, along with four other House moderates, said she won’t support the bill overall until she has time to review the final text and corresponding cost estimates that aren't yet available.

Rep. Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y., chairman of the Judiciary Committee that advanced the initial version of the immigration plan, acknowledged: “We’re looking for something that will pass muster with the parliamentarian.”

[House Democrats press Senate leaders to override parliamentarian on immigration]

House Democrats on Tuesday were also considering a slimmed-down version of the parole provision that would restrict undocumented immigrants from accessing public benefits, including health care, but four Democratic senators pushed for the inclusion of the benefits so the measure would be more likely to win approval under the Senate rules, a Democratic aide said.

“Our goal simply is that if you're going to give parole, which is the least of all the options, that that parole should be full in nature — and we'll see whether or not we can accomplish,” said Sen. Bob Menendez, D-N.J.

Even as the committee released text without a pathway to citizenship, some progressive House Democrats continued to advocate for including the registry option. Earlier Wednesday, Pelosi met for roughly an hour with Reps. Lou Correa of California, Adriano Espaillat of New York and Jesus "Chuy" Garcia of Illinois, the three Democrats who have said they would not vote for a reconciliation bill that omitted immigration.

Following the meeting, Espaillat said he still supports including the registry option, and that he and Pelosi “had a lengthy, genuine discussion about it.”

“Citizenship is important to me,” Correa said following meetings with Pelosi and the Democratic caucus. “I like registry.”

Immigration advocates question moderates’ rationale for narrowing the plan, given the parliamentarian’s opposition to prior versions.

“What is the logic that is driving the slimming down of a narrowing of the benefit and the number of people?” said Angelica Salas, executive director of Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights. “It's really important for us to question the logic around and how negotiations are moving forward.”

Patrice Lawrence, co-director of the UndocuBlack Network, blamed moderates’ hesitance on “not being clear on what the Senate is able to do and what the Senate is not able to do.” She maintained that Democrats have the authority to override the parliamentarian’s opinions.

Progressive Democrats have remained firm on demands that the bill be as expansive as possible, even if that involves overruling the parliamentarian. Rep. Lou Correa, D-Calif., one of three Latino Democrats threatening to vote against the bill if immigration provisions are not sufficiently broad, had little sympathy for moderates wary of taking a tough stance.

“It’s a fair issue, that this is a very difficult issue,” he said. “But we deal with difficult issues all the time — that’s why we get paid. I have been in tough situations, all of us have.”

Senate Majority Whip Richard J. Durbin, D-Ill., who has led his chamber’s effort to include immigration provisions in the reconciliation bill, acknowledged Tuesday that House lawmakers were working through some divisions between progressives and moderates.

He said he and Pelosi “went over the possibilities — and she’s got her hands full. I think she can do it. She’s masterful, but at this point, there’s some divisions within her caucus that she’s trying to work out.”

He also hinted similar divisions playing out in his own chamber.

“They have both liberals and moderates on the issue, and we have some of the same,” he said.

The stakes have never been higher for lawmakers and advocates who have spent years trying to overhaul the U.S. immigration system. The reconciliation bill could be the last big chance to provide relief to immigrants in years, particularly if Democrats lose their House and Senate majorities in next year’s midterms.

“We still think that’s an objective that is a very important one for our country,” House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer said Tuesday. “And if it is held to not be consistent with the reconciliation process then we’ll have to do it some other way because it needs to be done, we need to fix this immigration system.”

Laura Weiss, Lindsey McPherson, Paul Krawzak and Jennifer Shutt contributed to this report.