Senate Democrats have launched an ambitious, politically fraught effort to smash through decades of legislative inaction on immigration reform and provide a direct pathway to legal status for millions of undocumented immigrants in America.
If the measures become law, they would reshape the legal landscape for immigrants, potentially providing the biggest overhaul of U.S. immigration statutes since the Reagan administration and fulfilling a key pledge President Joe Biden made during the 2020 campaign.
Details have yet to be provided. Passage is far from certain and viewed as unlikely by some observers. Once finalized, the measures face not only procedural perils that could prevent them from even getting a vote in the Senate but also political hurdles as Democrats seek to pass transformative legislation on their own in the evenly divided chamber.
What are Democrats proposing?
On Monday, Senate Democrats unveiled an initial framework for a proposed federal budget resolution for the 2022 fiscal year, which begins in October. The framework includes two items pertaining to immigration — "lawful permanent status for qualified immigrants" and "investments in smart and effective border security measures."
No further details were provided, but Democrats have long championed providing legal status to a large proportion of the estimated 12 million undocumented immigrants in America — a first step toward potential U.S. citizenship.
The chairman of the Senate Budget Committee that produced the framework, Bernie Sanders of Vermont, on Monday tweeted, "We will bring undocumented people out of the shadows and provide them with a pathway to citizenship, including those who courageously kept our economy running in the middle of a deadly pandemic."
We will bring undocumented people out of the shadows and provide them with a pathway to citizenship, including those who courageously kept our economy running in the middle of a deadly pandemic.— Bernie Sanders (@SenSanders) August 9, 2021
Sanders is an independent who caucuses with Democrats.
Who would be affected?
The framework doesn't spell out the criteria that would make immigrants "qualified" to have their legal status adjusted, but most Democrats have an expansive rather than a restrictive view of legalization for the undocumented.
It's conceivable that eligibility requirements could be imposed pertaining to an immigrant's arrival date in the United States and whether an immigrant has a clean criminal record. At this stage, however, nothing is known for sure.
In addition to being vague, the text of the framework notes that it is a work in progress: "Please note: the list of items below is not final and not exclusive. This document … may be modified over the course of the bill drafting process and scoring process."
What is the history behind this effort?
The budget framework proposals mirror elements of Biden's immigration reform bill unveiled in February that would create an eight-year path to citizenship for millions of unauthorized immigrants in the U.S. while also providing a fast track to citizenship for those brought to the country illegally as children.
The proposals also mirror the broad strokes of a failed 2013 bipartisan effort at comprehensive immigration reform that passed the Senate but never received a vote in the House of Representatives.
It's been 35 years since Congress last acted to provide legal status to a large group of immigrants. In 1986, then-President Ronald Reagan signed the Immigration Reform and Control Act, which granted a pathway to permanent legal residency for almost 3 million unauthorized immigrants and created a U.S. visa for seasonal agricultural workers.
Will this become law?
That's anyone's guess for now. The immigration proposals are broadly popular among Democrats on Capitol Hill but have garnered little, if any, Republican backing.
The measures would not pass the Senate as a stand-alone bill, as a three-fifths majority backing would be needed to get to a final vote in a chamber where Democrats control only half the seats.
To get around the roadblock, Sanders is attaching immigration proposals to a massive $3.5 trillion spending blueprint Democrats are championing.
Under Senate rules, bills pertaining to federal spending and taxation can be passed with a simple majority through a process known as reconciliation. It is unclear whether immigration reform qualifies for that process. A negative ruling by the Senate parliamentarian would torpedo Democrats' immigration push before it got started.
Even if immigration reform is allowed under reconciliation, Senate Democrats would have to maintain lockstep unity in their caucus for the bill to advance, given likely unanimous Republican opposition.
On Monday, Republican Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina tweeted, "All Republicans will vote against this bill and many moderate Democrats will balk as well."
A single defection among Senate Democrats could derail the entire bill which, in addition to immigration reform, seeks to dramatically boost America's social safety net and aggressively reduce U.S. greenhouse gas emissions.