Progressives press for citizenship path as window closes

Slimmed-down immigration provisions in the reconciliation bill fall short of initial plans, they say

Rep. Lou Correa, D-Calif., is one of three House Democrats who have said they will support the reconciliation bill only if it includes specific immigration relief. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Rep. Lou Correa, D-Calif., is one of three House Democrats who have said they will support the reconciliation bill only if it includes specific immigration relief. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Posted November 4, 2021 at 6:49pm

While Democrats warmed up to newly slimmed-down provisions in their sprawling social spending bill that would carve out temporary immigration protections for millions of undocumented immigrants, several progressives continued pushing for a pathway to citizenship.

Rep. Jesus “Chuy” García — who staked his reconciliation vote on the legalization issue — expressed disappointment that the latest plan fell short and said he wasn’t ready to throw in the towel.

“It is not good enough at this juncture,” the Illinois Democrat said Thursday on MSNBC of Democrats’ current immigration provisions, which would provide five-year work permits and deportation protections but no permanent status. “We’re still exploring providing a pathway to getting a green card, and then the possibility of citizenship down the line.”

García has been trying to persuade his Democratic colleagues to reinstate a citizenship pathway in the reconciliation bill by adding back provisions that would update the immigration registry date to allow individuals who entered before 2010 to apply for green cards.

A House Democratic aide confirmed García is hoping to revive the provisions through a manager’s amendment, a package of changes to the bill that would be spearheaded by Democratic leaders.

García, along with Democratic Reps. Adriano Espaillat of New York and Lou Correa of California, have said they won’t vote for the multi-trillion dollar reconciliation bill if immigration relief isn’t included. The trio met with Speaker Nancy Pelosi for an hour Wednesday to discuss immigration.

However, despite widespread support among the House Democratic caucus to put the undocumented population on a path to permanent residency, the party released new bill text Wednesday with the more watered-down provisions in an effort to appease moderates reluctant to vote on language that would be doomed in the Senate.

Under Senate rules, measures passed through reconciliation, which allows bills to pass with a filibuster-proof majority, must primarily impact the federal budget. Senate parliamentarian Elizabeth MacDonough, the arbitrator of those rules, has rebuffed Democrats’ first two proposals for a pathway to citizenship. MacDonough has not yet reviewed the latest immigration plan.

Espaillat continued to express support Thursday for the registry option, despite its removal from the reconciliation text, but stopped short of saying he would vote against the bill without it.

“We shouldn't really negotiate against ourselves, undercut ourselves and not consider the broadest proposal, which is registry,” he said, noting the registry option hadn’t been formally rejected by the parliamentarian as Democrats’ original sweeping plan was. Instead, MacDonough informally advised Senate Democrats that the proposal wouldn’t pass muster.

The current immigration language “still bothers me,” Correa said.

The current options are “not the best cards we’ve had in the last few weeks. We’ve got a couple more issues that we need to address,” he said. 

Correa, Espaillat and García said they haven’t given up on the idea of adding the registry option back into the measure.

But it’s unclear how much support there is among House Democrats to reinstate the registry option, which would likely require all 50 Senate Democrats to vote to override MacDonough’s decision.

Pelosi told reporters Thursday the registry option “doesn't seem to have a big prospect in the Senate,” but the ball is in the Senate’s court: “If they want to do that, we want to do that. But it has to start with them."

Since the reconciliation text’s release, many House Democrats have lamented the bill didn’t go as far as they’d hoped. But they acknowledged the challenges of passing a path to citizenship in the Senate and signaled they would still support the bill.

A Democratic staffer said the current immigration plan seemed to be well-received by members when it was presented by Rep. Zoe Lofgren, who chairs the House Judiciary Committee’s immigration panel, at Thursday morning’s caucus meeting.

Lofgren later said: “It’s not everything I wanted, but it’s an improvement over this current situation.”

Rep. Judy Chu, D-Calif., who spearheaded proposed immigration overhaul legislation earlier this year, said she would have preferred to see a pathway to citizenship in the bill but conceded the Senate did not have the votes to override the parliamentarian. “So as far as I’m concerned, there is no choice on that,” Chu said.

“I think we’re disappointed that it’s not what we had really had hoped for, and we’re still trying to digest it,” said Rep. Sylvia R. Garcia, D-Texas, adding she hopes the Senate “will be able to build on what we’re going to vote on.”

Senate Democrats who are preparing to pitch the House provisions to the parliamentarian reluctantly acknowledged that the temporary immigration provisions could be their best chance at success.

“Under the circumstances, it’s probably the best pathway forward,” said Sen. Bob Menendez, D-N.J., a key player in immigration talks.

Immigrant advocates, a loud voice behind the yearslong push for a path to citizenship for the undocumented population, are also embracing the narrower proposal.

“These provisions are not what we have been fighting for,” Alida Garcia, a prominent immigrant advocate and former White House adviser under the Biden administration, told reporters Thursday. The bill, however, remains a “big deal,” she said.

“This would be the most significant immigration measure passed by Congress in decades, and would provide immigration relief to the largest population in history,” she said.

However, even with more Democratic consensus on the immigration issue, the future of the provisions remains murky.

MacDonough has not yet approved the current immigration plan, and Senate Democrats say they are still waiting on a final Congressional Budget Office score to present it.

House Democrats hope the temporary nature of the benefits will be enough to assuage the concerns raised in her earlier decisions, and several said they don’t need to wait for a final parliamentarian determination to vote on the reconciliation package.

“I think we’ve got some language in here that helps a lot of people, and I think we’re going to coalesce around it, but we do have to wait and see,” said Rep. Veronica Escobar, D-Texas. “What happens in the Senate is undetermined right now but we can’t hold off and keep waiting. I think we have to act.”

Lindsey McPherson and David Lerman contributed to this report.