Might this be the year when Congress finally delivers immigration reform?
After years of failed efforts to overhaul the country’s anachronistic immigration laws, Democrats are now on the verge of granting millions of immigrants without legal status in the United States the benefit of permanently coming out of the shadows, getting a work permit, and, eventually, obtaining citizenship.
But Democrats are attempting to pass these and other big-agenda provisions, such as climate and health care legislation, in a $3.5 trillion spending package, without Republican support, via budget reconciliation, an obscure process that was not designed for big policy changes. To use it to legislate major reforms is a novel approach, a paradigm shift that overcomes what has arguably become the biggest barrier to legislate on Capitol Hill: the filibuster.
The potential benefits of the immigration plan are great for all Americans. According to estimates from the Center for American Progress and the University of California at Davis’s Global Migration Center, the legalization of as many as 8 million immigrants will translate into an additional $1.5 trillion to the US gross domestic product; the creation of 400,000 new jobs; and an increase of annual wages for all Americans by an average $600 over the next 10 years.
Earlier this week, the House cleared a path for the package, which now awaits approval in the Senate, where budget reconciliation only requires a simple majority of 51 votes, rather than 60, to advance. That would mean the immigration provisions could move forward without Republican support. But first, they must be ruled valid for inclusion in reconciliation by the Senate parliamentarian, Elizabeth MacDonough, who evaluates the spending bill against arcane Senate rules and precedents that limit what can be legislated through the budget. She is expected to issue guidance soon.
Simply put, amendments cannot be included in reconciliation if they worsen the deficit and if the budgetary effect they produce is merely incidental to the non-budgetary policy change, among other similar conditions. MacDonough, as the nonpartisan enforcer of these regulations, already ruled against the Democrats earlier this year: When the Democrats passed a coronavirus relief package using reconciliation, she rejected a provision to raise the minimum wage.
Democratic aides told CBS News that the immigration plan is in compliance with those rules. They believe the “bill’s budgetary effects are a substantial, direct, and intended result, and that the non-budgetary effects do not so disproportionately outweigh the budgetary effects as to make them merely incidental,” an unnamed aide told CBS. That’s because these reforms would let immigrants apply for permanent residency, and thus make them eligible for some federal benefits such as Medicaid and food stamps.
Of course, ordinarily, there is a lot to say for a bipartisan route to enact major US policy with significant budgetary implications, such as revising the immigration status of millions of people in one huge sweep. Although Republicans are expected to oppose the current proposal because it does not provide the border security they want and because some view it as mass amnesty for lawbreakers, many in the party have in the past signaled some openness to similar reforms. And yet, attempts to pass bipartisan immigration reform have failed repeatedly; Republican opponents always found a way to thwart the majority of Americans’ will. In fact, a new poll in 12 states shows that a majority of voters favor these immigration changes. Support “ranges from 62 percent of voters in Montana to 80 percent of voters in Oregon,” read a summary of the poll.
If approved for inclusion in the reconciliation bill, the current proposal finally provides a critical window to act by ducking Republicans’ longstanding opposition to immigration reform. It’s the best chance Congress has had in years, and Democrats deserve credit for trying.
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