Washington: US President Joe Biden’s ambitious immigration agenda suffered another blow after a key Senate parliamentarian rejected Democrats’ plan that could have created a pathway to citizenship for millions of undocumented immigrants by updating a decades-old immigration registry.
The decision is a major setback for Democrats, who have promised to overhaul the immigration system as part of their sweeping USD 3.5 trillion budget reconciliation bill to remake American social programmes.
Democrats had pitched parliamentarian Elizabeth MacDonough on legalising millions of undocumented immigrants by making a change to the date for when undocumented immigrants within the United States can apply to adjust their legal status.
The immigration registry was created under the Registry Act of 1929, which created a process for immigrants to apply for a Green Card.
A Green Card, known officially as a Permanent Resident Card, is a document issued to immigrants to the US as evidence that the bearer has been granted the privilege of residing permanently.
According to an analysis by FWD.us, changing the registry date to 2010 allowing any migrants who’ve been in the country since that date to apply for residency would make around 6.7 million people eligible for legal permanent residency.
Those who currently qualify for the registry must have maintained a continuous presence in the United States and were of “good moral character” before January 1, 1972, according to USA Today.
Democrats presented a plan to the parliamentarian to change the immigration registry date to 2010.
But MacDonough told Democrats that the option was a non-starter, The Hill reported.
Democrats are pursuing other backup plans with the Senate referee, according to a source familiar with Democrats’ strategy.
Because of the special fast-track procedure, the Democrats are using to pass their social spending bill, all parts must conform to Senate rules.
The process, called reconciliation, allows Democrats to pass their bill with only 50 votes plus the tie-breaking vote of Vice President Kamala Harris.
The parliamentarian is the arbiter of whether policies comply with the rules.
Changing the registry date is a “weighty policy change and our analysis of this issue is thus largely the same” as for Democrats’ previous proposal to provide legal permanent resident status to some immigrants, MacDonough told Democrats in her guidance.
“It’s unfortunate. I disagree with her … but we’ll go to Plan C,” said Senator Bob Menendez from New Jersey.
Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Dick Durbin from Illinois said he was disappointed in the ruling and that it left them with limited options.
[But] it still involved legal permanent residency; we knew we still had a real challenge, Durbin said about the push to get a change in the registry date.
Democrats had initially pitched MacDonough on using their spending bill to provide 8 million green cards to immigrants in four groups: “Dreamers,” who came to the US illegally as children; temporary protected status (TPS) holders; agricultural workers and other essential workers.
But she rejected that earlier this month, saying that it was “not appropriate” for reconciliation.
Democrats then pitched to MacDonough a change to the registry date for certain undocumented immigrants and beneficiaries of humanitarian parole programmes, essentially implementing a statute of limitations for past unauthorised entries.
It currently allows undocumented immigrants who came to the United States before 1972 to apply for legal status.
MacDonough’s latest ruling immediately renewed calls from outside groups for Democrats to overrule her something they could do with total unity from their 50 members plus Vice President Harris presiding over the Senate.
When asked about the parliamentarian’s ruling, White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said members of Congress “have indicated that they are committed to getting immigration reform done”, USA Today reported.
Congress has struggled to pass immigration reform for decades, with the last major reform passed in 1986.
The last comprehensive bill, sponsored by a group of bipartisan senators, was brought up in 2013, where it passed in the Senate but died in the House.
Earlier this year, the House passed two bills that would provide a pathway to citizenship for Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), a programme that allows undocumented people brought to the country as children to stay, and for farmworkers.
Neither bill has been brought up by the Senate.
Psaki said that Congress will likely have to look at what other options are available to get immigration reform passed.
“We are committed to getting immigration reform done,” she said. “This, I expect, would renew a look for what the vehicles and options may be.