Immigration advocates are watching closely as lawmakers work to finalize details of President Joe Biden’s $1.75 trillion Build Back Better social spending and climate bill, hoping for radical change from a Democrat-controlled Congress.
But they're bracing for a harsh reality: That many of immigration provisions could be whittled down — or nixed completely — before the Senate even moves to vote on the $1.75 spending legislation.
The House could vote as early as this Friday to approve the bill, pending the release of a financial impact report from the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office.
The current version of the bill includes $100 billion in funding on immigration-related issues. While it does not provide a pathway to citizenship sought by many immigrant advocacy groups, it does include a provision granting a five-year “parole” period to temporarily protect undocumented immigrants from deportation.
Undocumented immigrants who have lived and worked in the U.S. since at least 2011 could apply for renewable, five-year work permits.
The immigration provision also allocates funds to U.S. Customs and Immigration Service to help alleviate the backlog in green card applications and applications for temporary protection status, and provides federal financial aid to young undocumented immigrants enrolled in the DACA program
Democrats are facing mounting pressure from immigrant advocacy groups to ensure these protections are in the final Build Back Better legislation when it reaches Biden’s desk for signature.
Already, activists are frustrated that the provisions stop short of granting undocumented immigrants a pathway to citizenship or permanent green cards — something that the Senate parliamentarian seems to have ruled out — instead, offering what they see as watered-down, temporary reprieves.
“That temporary status, while appreciated, is not really what we need for these individuals who have given so much to the American economy to enter this country,” Edna Yang, co-executive director of the immigration legal aid group American Gateways, told Spectrum News in an interview.
“We have people who are stuck in limbo, in mixed status families, people who have been here for decades and decades—as Dreamers, with temporary protected status, who have significant ties here in the United States, and who should be afforded the ability to stay here lawfully and permanently in the United States,” Yang added.
These individuals include Yunuen Alvarado, a 23-year-old DACA recipient and graduate student at Texas State University, who came to the U.S. from Mexico when she was 6.
Alvarado has lived in the U.S. for more than half her life. But without a permanent status, she says, she’s been living in a constant state of uncertainty.
“Even though that has been a long time, I'm still very aware that I'm not from here,” she told Spectrum News in an interview. “And even with the DACA status … it's not a permanent status. And so I am very painfully aware that this can be taken away anytime.”
“We're human beings,” Alvarado added. “At the end of the day, the only thing that separates us is that we were born in a different country.”
Meanwhile, efforts to protect undocumented immigrants in the U.S. have earned fairly widespread public support. A new survey from the left-leaning think tank Data for Progress found that a 75% majority of U.S. voters said they support efforts to provide Dreamers and other undocumented immigrants with the ability to earn work permits and protection from deportation, including 88% of Democrats and 81% of independents.
But any immigration measures included in the Build Back Better bill are almost certain to face an uphill battle in the evenly divided Senate. There, Democrats will be tasked with delicately fine-tuning legislation that can win support from all 50 of its members, including moderate Sens. Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona and Joe Manchin of West Virginia.
Additionally, the provisions will be subject to ruling of the Senate Parliamentarian Elizabeth McDonough, who has twice rejected earlier attempts to pass immigration relief measures through reconciliation.
In her second rejection of the effort earlier this year, McDonough wrote, “Changing the law to clear the way to [lawful permeant residency] status is tremendous and enduring policy change that dwarfs its budgetary impact.”
But unlike those efforts—which would have created a permanent pathway to citizenship — Democrats have worked carefully to craft measures that don’t create any permeant legal protections that weren’t authorized previously by Congress.
At least one moderate appears supportive of the immigration funding: Sinema said last week that she supports the immigration provisions included in the House package.
But it’s still unclear whether Manchin — who has dug his heels in on other popular provisions, including paid family leave — will allow the immigration measures to proceed.
Last month, Manchin told reporters he believed immigration reform was likely “too big” an issue to be resolved in the social spending package.
“I don’t think it’s going to be in there,” Manchin said. “I really don’t.”
Without those provisions, Democrats could face real political backlash heading into the 2022 midterm elections.
"My call to Democrats is for them to keep their promise, and give immigrants exactly what what you've been promising them for decades," Allen Morris, a legislative affairs associate with the immigrant advocacy group RAICES, told Spectrum News in an interview. "No more, should anyone have to live a lifestyle of looking over their shoulder or having a cloud of judgment and reign over them. No one should have that."
And Democrats, he added, "have the power to change that."