Carole Levine September 13, 2021
As a nation we have always been proud to point out that we are a nation of immigrants. For many, our heritage is built on ancestry that came to this nation for a better life than they had in their “home” country. For others, their journey here was not so hopeful, but was one of fear and being torn from their homelands to be enslaved in this land. And for our indigenous peoples, who should stand most tall and proud on this land, we have stories of maltreatment, and taking over their lands and pushing them into areas that were and are not their homelands. Our immigration stories are many and varied and often not pretty. And the same might be said for the laws that govern our immigration policies. While we cannot change our the past, except perhaps, to tell it more accurately, we can change the policies that currently serve to block good people from becoming legal residents and citizens of this so-called “melting pot” of a nation.
We are currently opening our doors to welcome evacuated refugees from Afghanistan, while the Supreme Court reinstates the “Remain in Mexico” policy for others seeking asylum for similar reasons. ( I wrote about this a few weeks ago.) While this imbalance seems unfair and discriminatory, as it well may be, it is also, right now highly partisan. And addressing it from a highly partisan perspective, may be the way to make some long-needed change in policy that could not be achieved in any other way.
As I write this, Senators are working on ways to integrate immigration reform legislation into the huge $3.5 trillion budget reconciliation measure. The key to this is the approval of the Senate parliamentarian Elizabeth MacDonough who will have to interpret the rules of that chamber to see if including these measures is a fit. The key for MacDonough is her interpretation of whether or not the immigration provisions have a “more than incidental” impact on the federal budget. If she determines that they do, they are in. Otherwise, they are excluded unless the Democrats decide to ignore the ruling of MacDonough (which they can) and include the immigration reform legislation anyway. They are always hesitant to “rock the boat,” but they have this option and this may be the time to do it. For several million undocumented immigrants already living in the U.S., this might mean the difference in being left in limbo or being given the opportunity to establish legal residence and begin the process toward citizenship.
What is being proposed would bring legal status to four categories of noncitizens. Best known of these would be those brought to the U.S. as children, known as Dreamers or DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) recipients. But the Democratic proposal would also include immigrants who were granted Temporary Protected Status for humanitarian reasons; close to one million farmworkers; and millions more whom Democrats consider “essential workers.” All of this for Parliamentarian Elizabeth MacDonough may come down to costs and the budgetary impact. And this is where the great divide between the two political parties is seen most clearly.
The New York Times pins the budgetary costs of the changes to the immigration laws to areas of health care benefits, Medicaid and tax credits that would exceed $139 billion over 10 years. These figures are based on preliminary figures from the Congressional Budget Office. Adding to their arguments for inclusion, Democrats point out that legalization would add $1.5 trillion to the economy over the next 10 years, creating more than 400,000 jobs.
Of course, there is a Republican counter to all this positivity. They claim this is a minimal impact on the budget and not where our immigration work and policy should be focused. They feel we should be securing our southern border before we attempt to change our immigration laws. According to Senator Richard Durbin, the No.2 Senate Democrat who tried to organize meetings with a bipartisan group of senators to discuss this, only to see it fall apart, “We had six or eight bipartisan meetings. I could never get anywhere near 10 Republican senators to attend and most of them would not consistently show up. There wasn’t enough interest on their side of the aisle on the subject.” Durbin is very concerned about what the impact of inaction will be on the Dreamers due to a federal court ruling that could put their status in danger. “If we don’t move, there’s a very real chance these people will be subject to deportation,” he said.
So, should we be hopeful? Will the parliamentarian lean toward keeping immigration reform in the budget reconciliation? Is doing this in a purely partisan way the best way forward… or the only way forward? The answer to most of these questions for me, is yes. While the parliamentarian earlier rejected the inclusion of a $15 minimum wage, according to Kevin Kayes, a former assistant Senate parliamentarian, immigration changes are a much stronger case. Why? “The minimum wage,” he said, “is a private-sector mandate. With immigration, we’re talking about a basic government function.” As for doing this as a partisan way… If that’s what it takes to do what is right by those who are seeking refuge and have been contributing members of our communities (and our economy) for years and sometimes decades, and on whose labor we depend, then we should act, even if it is one-sided. There is much at stake here, including the lives of millions of human beings whose dream is to be a part of our society. We should welcome them with open arms and with a budget reconciliation process that provides them a path to citizenship. And nothing should stand in the way.