Politics & Policy

The Immigration Radicalism of the Democratic Reconciliation Bill

U.S. Border Patrol agent Carlos Rivera guides migrants to be processed after they attempted to cross the border from Mexico into Sunland Park, N.M., September 17, 2021. (Paul Ratje/Reuters)

We are all familiar with the fiscal radicalism of the Democratic reconciliation bill, but it’s time to focus more on the immigration radicalism of the bill.

The proposal includes a sweeping amnesty and large-scale increases in legal immigration. These provisions make the bill one of the most far-reaching immigration plans of the last decade, although almost no one has paid attention because the changes are tucked into a gargantuan $3.5 trillion spending plan

This Russian-nesting-doll approach may be a clever legislative strategy, but it is terrible democratic accountability. There is no way that this immigration proposal would pass if it were a stand-alone measure subject to normal scrutiny and debate.

The amnesty would cover an estimated 8 million illegal aliens, easily constituting the largest amnesty in American history. 

The bill has a broad definition of so-called Dreamers. To benefit from DACA, illegal immigrants had to have entered the United States when they were under the age of 16 and resided here since 2007. In the reconciliation bill, the standards shift to include people who came under the age of 18 and resided here on or before January 1 of this year.

On top of that, the amnesty includes “essential workers,” more or less any illegal immigrant with a blue-collar job; those with or eligible for Temporary Protected Status, which keeps illegal immigrants from being deported back to a country experiencing unrest or a natural disaster (even if the event occurred years previously); and those with or eligible for deferred enforced departure, another form of protection from deportation. 

In prior “comprehensive immigration bills,” the amnesties were combined with (at least in theory) tough-minded requirements on illegal immigrants before they got green cards and also with enforcement measures to reduce the need for future amnesties. The reconciliation bill dispenses with any such attempts at balance. Instead, it implements a massive, unadorned amnesty at a time when the border is already out of control, in part because migrants believe, not unreasonably, they will stay in the country once they manage to gain entry. 

Moreover, the bill exempts illegal aliens from various grounds for inadmissibility, and gives the secretary of homeland security the authority to waive other grounds. 

The bill is just as radical on legal immigration. Among other provisions, it would raise the number of green cards that can be issued by the number of green cards that could have been issued but weren’t since 1992, thus “recapturing” these “unused” visas. It would allow foreign nationals to jump the line and get a green card for a small fee if the wait is longer than two years. It would vitiate the requirement that someone can apply for a green card only if a visa will soon be available. It would admit any winner of the diversity lottery who was blocked from entry by the Trump travel ban or other executive orders over the last four years. It would blow past various caps on family reunification and employment categories. 

Again, when past comprehensive immigration bills increased levels of legal immigration, they made a nod to balance by putting a greater emphasis on merit and skills. This bill, in contrast, is simply higher levels. 

Both the amnesty and the increases in legal immigration would have enormous effects over time, as newly legalized or admitted immigrants would bring in relatives who would bring in more relatives in turn. 

We admire Joe Manchin for objecting to the $3.5 trillion price tag of the reconciliation bill, but there’s no excuse for him sounding favorable to the immigration provisions. Other relative Democratic moderates, like the Arizona senators Mark Kelly and Kyrsten Sinema, should want no part of hiding the worst comprehensive immigration bill yet among trillions of spending in what is supposed to be a purely budgetary measure. 

If Senate parliamentarian Elizabeth MacDonough is doing her job, the immigration provisions will be struck as violations of the so-called Byrd rule, meant to keep reconciliation bills from becoming an end run around the filibuster for matters unrelated to taxing and spending. 

Until that happens, Republicans and supporters of a rational immigration system should sound the klaxon about a travesty of an immigration bill folded into an outrage of a spending bill.


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