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Budget Reconciliation Could Provide Path to Citizenship for Millions of Immigrants

The expedited process doesn’t require Republican support and may be the best chance for reform in decades.

This article was published by Capital & Main.

Susie Lujano, 28, envisions herself living in Houston forever with her soon-to-be husband and the child they’re expecting. She grew up in the coastal city from the age of 3 with her parents and younger sister. She remembers finding community at a local church, going to school with diverse classmates and working jobs in fields ranging from psychiatry to the law. She doesn’t remember the place where she was born in central Mexico at all.

But every couple of years, she worries whether she’ll be allowed to stay in the United States or be deported. Lujano has temporary immigration status and a permit to work in the United States as one of more than 600,000 current recipients of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA). Her family members range in status: Some are citizens, others are undocumented or have temporary protected status based on conditions in the country they fled. They are among millions of people living and working in the country without a way to stay permanently.

“This is our home,” Lujano says. “We deserve stability.” That’s why she is calling on Democrats in Congress to expand pathways to citizenship for people like her using an expedited budget process called reconciliation. The approach doesn’t require any Republican support and, until this week, many advocates saw it as the best chance for reform in decades.

Both houses of Congress included plans to expand residency for some undocumented immigrants in a $3.5 trillion budget blueprint passed last month. But in the weeks since, as policymakers hash out the budget and draft it as law, the immigration proposal has seen pushback from Republicans and been threatened by a rift between moderate and progressive Democrats. A nonpartisan official who oversees the process rejected Democrats’ inclusion of immigration in the budget on Sept. 19. Senate leaders are now formulating alternative proposals they hope may sway her and considering other options, including ignoring the parlimentarian’s advice.

Nonetheless, supporters of the immigration proposal are urging Democrats to move forward no matter what it takes. Lujano, who volunteers with the country’s largest immigrant youth-led advocacy group, United We Dream, says she’s tired of Democrats throwing breadcrumbs to immigrant communities during election years then failing to live up to those promises. 

She believes that if Democrats pass the proposal, it would help their chances electorally and give the country an economic boost, while transforming the lives of people like her. “It would mean finally being accepted, fully,” she says.

While the scope of the current proposal and the likelihood of it passing are uncertain, experts and advocates told Capital & Main that incorporating millions of immigrants already living and working in the United States would lead to improved worker conditions, higher wages and better access to health and safety net services, among other economic boons for U.S. and foreign born Americans alike.

“The benefits to the economy and people across the nation would be substantial,” says Claudia Flores, associate director for policy and strategy at the Center for American Progress think tank. “For voters on both sides of the aisle, immigration reform has been on their minds for so long that I think it will be monumental for Democrats to go at it alone,” she adds.

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Immigration reform has stalled for decades. Although Democrats and Republicans have sought bipartisan solutions, negotiations intended to exchange “border security” measures for improvements to legal immigration have so far led to ramped up enforcement without the reform.

“It’s frustrating that we’re still confined by immigration laws [including the Immigration Act of 1990] that were put in place in the ’90s, or even earlier, when our entire economy has changed since then,” says Dan Wallace, deputy managing director at New American Economy, a bipartisan research and advocacy group promoting immigration policy as a way to strengthen the economy. “It really hinders our ability to adapt and grow,” he adds.

Undocumented workers and their households, the majority of whom are Latino, already contribute about $79.7 billion in federal taxes and $41 billion in state and local taxes each year. They also spend almost $315 billion shopping for goods and services annually.

Citizenship for these immigrants is widely popular across political party lines and has been for decades. But with GOP senators promising to use the filibuster to block a vote on the Biden administration’s signature immigration reform bill, many see reconciliation as the only viable way for some version of reform to be passed. Many mayors and governors, chambers of commerce, business leaders, academics and economists across the country have encouraged Democrats to pass reform for economic reasons and consider reconciliation as a tool to do so. As recently as last week, the White House itself made a similar case.

The exact economic benefit will depend on whom policymakers decide to include and how. “Legalization would have a significant economic and budgetary impact,” says Mark Delich, who directs federal policy and government relations for the bipartisan immigration reform group FWD.us, which estimates the Democrats’ plan could boost the U.S. economy by between $52 billion and $121 billion annually. Other estimates put the gain at around $1.5 trillion and 400,000 new jobs.

The citizenship expansion may also be an anti-poverty and labor rights tool, says Wendy Cervantes, who directs immigration work at the Center for Law and Social Policy. 

Many of the immigrants being considered for legal status are currently stuck in low wage jobs with few worker protections or benefits, and they are vulnerable to exploitation and retaliation if they try to unionize or report labor violations.

“All of that trickles down to their families and to their kids and to the broader community,” Cervantes says. “As long as there’s one subset of the worker population that you can exploit, it just weakens the rights of all workers.”

Lujano told Capital & Main that her father, who works as a car mechanic in Houston, came to the United States expecting to be able to support his daughters with higher pay and stability. “All of that was obviously for people who had papers, and my dad didn’t,” Lujano says. While her fiancé, who has DACA status, works in an air conditioned auto shop, she sees her father exposed to the seasons in an open-air warehouse. “I see the disparity there,” she says.

As a way to increase protections and prevent abuses for workers like Lujano’s dad, Secretary of Labor Marty Walsh, himself the child of immigrants and a longtime supporter of integrating immigrants into the U.S. economy, has been urging Congress in recent months to pass a path to citizenship for workers.

As the Biden administration attempts to carry out its “build back better” plan aimed at economic recovery in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, advocates say citizenship will play a key role.

Three-quarters of undocumented people in the United States are essential workers. And immigrants accounted for most jobs lost in industries like child care and hospitality during the pandemic. Latinas in particular became disproportionately unemployed. Biden recently said he recognizes that immigrants experienced “disproportionate heartache” and “stepped up to carry Americans through this crisis.” 

The budget plan Democrats hope to pass includes safety net supports like expanded Medicare, universal preschool, paid family leave, child and elder care assistance and climate change response — paid for by raising taxes on companies and high earners. If millions of immigrants were granted a pathway to permanent status, they could also become eligible for this assistance.

However, Republican leaders have pushed back against the reconciliation plans, calling it a “tax and spend plan from Hell” that will expand government reach, hike taxes, stifle the economy and “stoke the fires of inflation.” 

GOP lawmakers have also called it a “partisan power grab” and celebrated this week’s setback for Democrats, describing the proposal as an attempt to “stuff their most radical amnesty proposals into [a] reckless taxing and spending spree.” Democrats and Republicans have only found common ground when it comes to border policy. The budget blueprint for reconciliation included $10 billion for border security, and policymakers invested $1 billion in ramped up surveillance technology earlier this year.

Some moderate Democrats, such as Sens. Kyrsten Sinema and Joe Manchin, say the reconciliation plans are too costly and haven’t committed to supporting measures like the citizenship expansion, whether as part of the budget process or through separate legislation. Meanwhile, some progressives are strategizing to withhold their votes on a massive bipartisan infrastructure bill, up for a vote next week, unless moderates vote for reconciliation — if they get their way, both bills will pass or neither.

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Many conservatives and moderates who support immigration reform for economic reasons say reconciliation is not the right way to pass it. And some advocates say that even if Democrats somehow succeed, it would be only a first step toward inviting and incorporating more immigrants through improved systems for visas and legal status.

Douglas Holtz-Eakin, president of the center-right advocacy group American Action Forum and former director of the Congressional Budget Office, disagrees with the strategy of using a partisan process because he worries the issue will remain a “political football” rather than an effective long-term plan.

Holtz-Eakin says the Biden administration and Congress could alternatively reform the visa granting system by looking more closely at job résumés and seeking to attract and accept immigrants who can create economic value in the country in industries ranging from agriculture and construction to science and math. “The spillover benefits for everyone who’s in the economy are real and very valuable,” he says.

Over the last decade, the United States has seen its slowest population growth in 80 years, according to the 2020 census, due to falling fertility rates and immigration, which dropped dramatically during the Trump administration’s crackdown on both legal and illegal migration.

Some cities, particularly in the Midwest and the South, which have been inviting immigrants into their communities — to spur innovation, increase tax revenue and help revitalize shrunken populations and decimated industries, among other reasons — are now seeing dwindling numbers of legal immigrants. For example, immigrants have made northwestern Arkansas one of the fastest growing metropolitan areas in the country, according to the New York Times. And Dayton, Ohio found that after welcoming more foreign workers, its workforce grew, new jobs were created, entrepreneurialism increased, and housing values rose. But without continuing migration, that progress could slow.

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce is calling for more legal pathways for immigrants to expand the U.S. workforce at a time when worsening labor shortages and a record high number of job openings are slowing the country’s economic rebound. In recent years, chambers of commerce and business leaders in Iowa, Texas, Florida, Utah and Colorado signed “state compacts” laying out immigration goals to support economic growth, including calls for the federal government to pass reforms.

“We cannot wait any longer,” Lujano says. “We’d love to continue contributing to the country, to our home.” 

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