How Democrats can protect the immigrants on the pandemic’s front lines

Members of the public put messages in crayons supporting healthcare workers. This sign was on the caregivers walk between the garage and their work at a hospital in Florida. (Photo: courtesy Nurse Marina Bijoy)

Since covid-19 hit the United States, an estimated 5.2 million undocumented immigrants have worked as essential workers – including 400,000 agricultural workers; 400,000 cleaning staff; 300,000 packers, stockers and shippers of essential goods; and 100,000 home health and personal care aides. About 29,000 recipients of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program – immigrants brought to the United States without papers as children – have been working on the front lines as physicians, residents, nurses, paramedics or medical students.

These groups have risen to the occasion time and again, and have been widely commended for their heroic efforts. But now, despite a historic opportunity to stabilize the lives of these workers and recognize their contributions, there is no sign of action from our politicians – especially Republicans.

There has been some bipartisan talk about legalizing at least some of the “dreamers.” But every time it seems there might be agreement, Republican senators back off. And they remain resistant, even after a federal judge recently ruled the current administrative fix for DACA is unlawful.

This makes it even clearer that the only answer is a legislative solution, passed by Congress, for dreamers, those in temporary protected status, and other immigrant essential workers and their families. And the court case hanging over us (even though it will be appealed) makes such a solution more urgent than ever.

All of which brings us to the opportunity in front of Congress: budget reconciliation. The Byrd rule lays out criteria for a measure to be included in budget reconciliation, the most important of which is that the measure must have an impact on direct spending and outlays. In essence, the budgetary effects of a provision must not be merely incidental to the non-budgetary impacts of the provision.

Given the budgetary impact of legalizing our nation’s undocumented essential workforce, this test is easily met.

In the short term, immigration reform would result in substantial fees to process and adjudicate the immigration benefits. Coupled with more than $39 billion annually in additional tax revenue collected as a result of citizenship, and the long-term economic benefits (including increased wages for all workers across the country), a pathway to citizenship would have a substantial budgetary impact and is essential to long-term economic growth.

This is not the first time immigration measures have been included in a budget reconciliation package. In 2005, the Republican-controlled Senate passed a bipartisan reconciliation bill that would have amended the Immigration and Nationality Act to dramatically increase the number of immigrant visas. These visas would have allowed for the adjustment of status to lawful permanent residency in a way similar to what the Dream Act and other pending proposals would do.

Americans want Congress to legislate a pathway to citizenship to keep families safe and together, especially those who have contributed so much to weathering covid-19 and to the current recovery.

There is popular support for allowing immigrants who are already contributing to our families and communities to earn a pathway to citizenship. A recent poll conducted by Global Strategy Group, Garin Hart Yang and LD Insights found that the overwhelming majority of Americans agree with providing a pathway to citizenship to undocumented immigrants over deporting them (79% to 21%). That includes Republicans, who prefer citizenship over deportation by a 61% to 39% margin. Another poll, conducted by veteran pollster Matt Barreto, found that 70% of Americans support fixing our immigration system; 71% of voters agree that politicians have been talking about immigration reform for 30 years and that nothing permanent has been done – and they want to see legislative action.

Most Americans don’t see this as a partisan issue. Republicans, unfortunately, seem unwilling to work seriously to find a solution to this problem. If Democrats must go it alone, they are doing so not to advance some political agenda, but for the good of the country.

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Janet Murguía is president and chief executive of UnidosUS. William Kristol is director of Defending Democracy Together.

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