Temporary immigration protections for millions pass the House

Already watered down from what progressives originally sought, provisions face a rocky path in the Senate

An immigration activist demonstrates in front of the Supreme Court in May. Progressive Democrats had pushed for more permanent protections for undocumented immigrants in the reconciliation bill.  (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
An immigration activist demonstrates in front of the Supreme Court in May. Progressive Democrats had pushed for more permanent protections for undocumented immigrants in the reconciliation bill. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Posted November 19, 2021 at 2:10pm

House Democrats passed legislation Friday that, while falling short of advocates’ calls for a path to citizenship, would establish sweeping protections for millions of immigrants for the first time in decades. 

The measure passed by a 220-213 vote as part of a sprawling social spending bill that sets aside roughly $2.2 trillion for child care and affordable health care, among other progressive priorities. The measure now goes to the Senate, which is expected to consider it next month. 

The Congressional Budget Office released an estimate Thursday predicting the bill’s Judiciary Committee provisions, which primarily fund immigration protections, would increase “on-budget” deficit costs over the next 10 years by $121.7 billion — roughly $14 billion above the amount allotted for those measures. In the second decade, the immigration provisions would add another $311.9 billion to deficits. Those estimates suggest the Senate will have to make additional changes to the measure for it to pass that chamber’s budget rules.

The bill would draw on “parole in place” authorities to allow an estimated 6.5 million immigrants, according to the CBO, who have lived in the U.S. since January 2011 to apply for five-year work permits and relief from deportation. 

It would not establish a path for those undocumented immigrants to become permanent residents and, eventually, American citizens. However, some undocumented immigrants with immediate relatives who are U.S. citizens may be able to adjust from that temporary status to a green card. 

Rep. Veronica Escobar, D-Texas, called the immigration provisions “woefully unacceptable” compared with what lawmakers originally hoped to include. “But at the very, very least, it’s movement and a step in a direction that gives us time to hopefully get more done,” she said ahead of the vote. 

The legislation would also help immigrants, mostly from India, stuck waiting in a yearslong green card backlog created by strict per-country visa caps. The bill would make hundreds of thousands more green cards available by “recapturing” visas that went unused at the end of each fiscal year since 1992 and would allow applicants to pay a fee to be exempt from those green card caps. 

U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, the primarily fee-funded Homeland Security agency that processes visa and other benefits requests, would get $2.8 billion to expand its processing capacity and reduce visa backlogs. 

If enacted in its current form, the bill would mark the first time Congress has protected such a large swath of the undocumented population since the Reagan administration. 

However, the immigration provisions remain at risk in the Senate, which has strict rules about measures that can pass via reconciliation, a process that allows primarily fiscal proposals to pass with a filibuster-proof majority. 

Senate Democrats have yet to pitch the “parole” option to Senate Parliamentarian Elizabeth MacDonough, the chamber’s adviser, who has shot down two previous proposals to include a path to citizenship in the bill. 

Democrats’ first proposal would have allowed certain categories of undocumented immigrants, including those brought to the U.S. as children and essential workers, to apply for green cards. Their second pitch would have updated the immigration registry to allow undocumented immigrants who entered the U.S. before 2010 to apply to fix their statuses. 

MacDonough, however, determined those provisions ran afoul of the so-called Byrd rule, which mandates that measures passed in reconciliation primarily impact the federal budget without greater policy implications. The earlier proposals, she said, carried significant policy implications that outweighed their financial impact. 

Senate Democrats said earlier this week they were waiting for the CBO to release its cost estimate for the immigration provisions to present the latest option to MacDonough. 

“It’s part of the package that’ll be presented as soon as the House finishes their work,” Majority Whip Richard J. Durbin of Illinois said Tuesday. 

The advancement of the temporary immigration provisions follows an unsuccessful push by immigrant advocates and some progressive Democrats to include more permanent protections for undocumented immigrants in the House version of the reconciliation bill. 

Reps. Jesus “Chuy” Garcia of Illinois, Lou Correa of California and Adriano Espaillat of New York, the three Democratic lawmakers who staked their reconciliation vote on the immigration provisions, had advocated the inclusion of the registry option in the House bill despite MacDonough’s informal rejection. 

They also signed on to a letter, joined by dozens of their colleagues, calling on Senate leaders to disregard MacDonough’s opinion. However, moderate Democrats, reluctant to pass immigration provisions they saw as doomed in the Senate, ultimately won out.

The trio met with Speaker Nancy Pelosi at least twice ahead of the House passage of the bipartisan infrastructure bill and of a rule to set debate parameters on the reconciliation bill earlier this month. 

Espaillat told reporters Wednesday he received a commitment from Pelosi on future immigration actions after reconciliation but would not elaborate. While he “would have liked” to see the registry option in the bill, the temporary protections are “the second best thing,” he said.

“If you leave your house, and you’re undocumented, you don’t know if you’re going to come back. So for you to have the tranquility that you can now come back home, you can even go travel and visit your mom, who you haven’t seen for 10, 15 years, that’s a good thing,” Espaillat said. 

Lindsey McPherson contributed to this report.