Senate parliamentarian deals fresh immigration blow to Dems

Sen. Robert Menendez, D-N.J., speaks during a Senate Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs Committee hearing on the CARES Act on Capitol Hill, Tuesday, Sept. 28, 2021 in Washington. (Kevin Dietsch/Pool via AP) (Kevin Dietsch, 2021 Getty Images)

WASHINGTON – The Senate parliamentarian told Democrats on Wednesday that their newest proposal for helping millions of immigrants stay in the U.S. permanently could not be included in their $3.5 trillion social and environment bill, the party's latest setback on the issue.

“It’s unfortunate. I disagree with her,” Sen. Bob Menendez, D-N.J., one of the party’s pro-immigration advocates, said of the decision by Elizabeth MacDonough, the chamber’s nonpartisan rules arbiter.

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The newly rejected language would have let immigrants in the U.S. before 2010 remain permanently if they met other conditions and could have helped 8 million people, said a person familiar with the plan who described it on condition of anonymity.

For many progressives and immigration advocates, one of the top goals of the $3.5 trillion bill has been to include a chance for permanent residence, and potentially citizenship, for millions of immigrants.

President Joe Biden proposed early this year seeking such a pathway for 11 million immigrants. While the House has approved legislation helping some of them, Republicans have bottled up those bills in the Senate and bipartisan talks there over potential compromises have failed.

Because of that blockade, Democrats have tried including their immigration provisions in the $3.5 trillion measure because it has special protections that prevent Republicans from using filibusters to kill it. Filibusters are delays that take 60 votes in the 50-50 Senate to halt.

Menendez and others said they would submit fresh immigration alternatives to MacDonough. He provided no specifics, and the chances that a subsequent Democratic proposal would survive were unclear.

Democrats must find a way to insert immigration language into the bill and “deliver for the voters who elected them, a majority of whom demand a pathway to citizenship,” said Sergio Gonzales, executive director of The Immigration Hub, a pro-immigration group. “Otherwise, Democrats know the price to pay will be steep at the ballot box.”

Menendez also issued a threat to the business community. Menendez said if Congress can’t help immigrants remain in the U.S., he will oppose future immigration changes that help businesses.

Asked if other senators shared that view, Menendez said, “In a 50-50 Senate, that’s the only opinion that matters.”

Democrats’ most recent rejected plan involved changing the 1929 Registry Act. Congress last updated the date in that law in 1986, when it said migrants in the U.S. before Jan. 1, 1972, could qualify for permanent status.

Earlier this month, MacDonough rejected a Democratic proposal to provide permanent status to immigrants who are “Dreamers” brought to the U.S. as children, farm and essential workers and people who’d fled certain countries battered by violence or natural disasters. It too could have helped 8 million people, the Congressional Budget Office estimated.

MacDonough ruled that Democrats’ initial proposal violated Senate rules allowing language in special fiscal bills — including the $3.5 trillion package — only if its primary impact is on the federal budget, not on government policy.

The latest plan had only “minor” differences from the initial one, MacDonough wrote, according to language provided to The Associated Press.

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