WASHINGTON (AP) — Democrats must drop an effort to let millions of immigrants remain temporarily in the U.S. from their expansive social and environment bill, the Senate parliamentarian decided Thursday, dealing the latest blow to a longtime priority of the party, migrant advocates and progressives.
The opinion by Elizabeth MacDonough, the Senate’s nonpartisan arbiter of its rules, all but certainly means Democrats will ultimately have to pull the proposal from their 10-year, roughly $2 trillion package. This measure includes climate change, health care and family services, which President Joe Biden considers top priorities. It is mostly funded by higher corporate and rich taxes.
When the Senate considers the overall legislation — which is currently stalled — Democrats are expected to try reviving the immigration provisions, or perhaps even stronger language giving migrants a way to become permanent residents or citizens. However, such attempts would meet strong opposition from Republicans and possibly a few Democrats. This would result in defeat for the 50-50 chamber.
MacDonough’s opinion was no surprise — it was the third time since September that she said Democrats would violate Senate rules by using the legislation to help immigrants and should remove immigration provisions from the bill. Advocates who hoped to use Democratic control over the White House or Congress to gain gains on this issue were disappointed.
MacDonough’s finding was the second defeat of the day inflicted on Democrats’ social and economic package. Biden also had to accept that Senate work on this massive bill will be delayed to January. This was after his negotiations with Sen. Joe Manchin D-W.Va. who is a holdout and wants to cut the legislation further.
“We will advance this work together over the days and weeks ahead,” the president said in a statement.
Democrats’ latest immigration proposal would have let an estimated 6.5 million immigrants in the U.S. since at least 2010 without legal authorization apply for up to two five-year work permits. They would be able to hold jobs and avoid being deported. In some cases, they could also travel overseas without having to risk their residence. Background checks would be required for all applicants.
The Democratic Senate allies of immigration advocates have stated that they would continue to seek a way for the legislation to contain provisions supporting migrants, though their path is not clear.
“Disappointed. And we’re considering what options remain,” Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Dick Durbin, D-Ill., told reporters about the parliamentarian’s ruling.
White House spokesperson Vedant Patel said the ruling “relegates millions to an uncertain and frightening future” and said Biden and Democrats “will keep fighting” to protect immigrants.
Democrats have created special rules to push the bill through the Senate with a simple majority vote. This is in addition to the usual 60 votes that legislation requires. GOP opposition to the bill would ensure that any immigration provisions Democrats desire will not be included in the final freestanding version.
But under those same rules, such bills can’t have provisions that are driven more by policy changes than by cuts or increases in the federal budget.
This is the call of the parliamentarian. She stated that Democrats failed this test, as the disputed terminology would have transformed a program currently granting work permits in a sparing manner into one where all applicants would need to be issued permits.
“These are substantial policy changes with lasting effects just like those we previously considered and outweigh the budgetary impact,” MacDonough wrote. Two Democratic proposals, each offering permanent legal status to 8 million immigrants, were rejected by MacDonough earlier this year.
The nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office has estimated that the bill’s immigration provisions would end up costing the government around $111 billion over 10 years, largely due to federal benefits immigrants would qualify to receive by gaining legal status.
It would not have provided a new route for people who want to stay in America permanently under the rejected plan. However, the budget office predicted last month that 3 million of the estimated 6.5million migrants would eventually get temporary permits. This is because the new status will remove certain obstacles.
Democrats have been urged by many progressives as well as migrant supporters for years to reject the opinion of MacDonough, who is advisory in nature and which senators rarely overturn. Advocates resumed pressuring the party to do so after MacDonough’s ruling.
“This is a fight about racial justice,” said Greisa Martinez Rosas, executive director of United We Dream, an immigrants’ rights group. She said that advocates will not accept any excuses to inaction, citing the overwhelming support Democrats receive from Hispanic voters.
“It’s time for Democrats to deliver on their promises; they must disregard today’s recommendation” by the parliamentarian and add citizenship provisions to the bill, she said.
It seems unlikely that Democrats would have the unanimous support they would need to overturn MacDonough’s opinion. Manchin, one of Congress’ more conservative Democrats, has said he would not vote to overturn a ruling the parliamentarian “on every issue.”
However, the top Democrats still indicated that they will try Thursday evening.
“We strongly disagree with the Senate parliamentarian’s interpretation of our immigration proposal, and we will pursue every means to achieve a path to citizenship” in the social and environment bill, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., Durbin and four Latino Democratic senators said in a statement. They added, “We stand with the millions of immigrant families across the country who deserve better and for whom we will not stop fighting.”
The latest proposal fell well short of Biden’s initial plan this year to give the 11 million immigrants in the U.S. without legal authorization a way to seek permanent residency and even citizenship.
Even so, it would have been Congress’ most sweeping move in decades to help migrants in this country. An estimated 2.5 million immigrants were granted permanent residence by the 1986 Immigration Reform Act.
Farnoush Amiri (Associated Press) contributed to the report.