It was 5 am on January 20 of 2021, and Joe Biden and Kamala Harris had not yet been sworn in as president and vice president of the United States.
But the new White House already had made public an ambitious immigration reform plan. That’s how Biden was carrying out his promise to send Congress in his first 100 days in office a proposal to legalize some 11 million undocumented immigrants.
There’s concern this could be another bubble that will burst in our faces.
We have seen this before, and it is a history of failure. Sens. John McCain, a Republican, and Ted Kennedy, a Democrat, proposed an agreement in 2005 that included legalizing the undocumented migrants. But nothing happened. In 2006, the House and Senate approved different bills on immigration reform but never agreed on a compromise. In 2007, the Senate considered another bill but never even took a vote on it. And the senators in the so-called Group of Eight managed to get a bill approved in the Senate in 2013, but John Boehner, leader of the Republican majority in the House, cruelly blocked a vote in the lower chamber.
Biden’s proposal includes permanent residence — the “green card” — after five years for undocumented migrants who have paid taxes and have no criminal record. Three years later, if they speak English and meet other requirements, they could become U.S. citizens. “It’s the broadest (proposal) I have seen in all my years trying to achieve an immigration reform,” Democratic Sen. Bob Menendez, who will sponsor Biden’s plan in the Senate. “I expect that in the next two or three weeks we will be able to submit the bill.”
That’s when all the hopes can blow up.
The bill is likely to be approved in the House, where Democrats have a clear majority. But the archaic Senate rules require the approval of 60 members to close debate on a bill and move to a vote. And the Senate has only 50 Democrats. In a country so divided and facing the pandemic, it would be almost impossible to find 10 Republicans who want to help the Democrats on such a controversial issue.
So what can we do? Work up a Plan B.
“Right now, Democrats have the slimmest of majorities,” Frank Sharry, founder and executive director of America’ Voice, told me. “Let’s be realistic. The GOP is now the party of Trump, power, plutocracy and racism … Democrats will have to go it alone if they want to produce change that changes lives.” Sharry has battled for years for a broad reform, like the one proposed by President Biden. But if that’s politically impossible now, he believes the strategy must be changed to give Latinos a victory, even if it’s a partial one.
“We are absolutely committed to a path to citizenship for the 11 million,” Lorella Praeli, who started out as an undocumented activist in Connecticut and is now president of Community Change Action, told me in an email. “But we’re pivoting from the all-or nothing approach that hasn’t worked in the past … Right now what seems most realistic is to use budget reconciliation to legalize as many people as possible, including essential workers, Dreamers, TPS holders and farmworkers. We believe that the economic package this spring is the best vehicle.”
That strategy is similar to the one that led in 2012 to DACA14 — Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals — that protects about 700,000 young people from deportation and allows them to work legally. When the Dreamers, who were brought illegally by their parents when they were children, realized that there was no support in Congress for legalizing their status, they leaned hard on President Barack Obama to protect them with an executive decree that remains in effect to this day. And their lives changed radically..
Now immigration Plan B has the same goal: To legalize or protect the largest number possible while searching for the required votes in Congress. It’s not ideal, but it’s all there is.
The last broad immigration reform was approved in 1986, during the Reagan administration. Three million undocumed migrants received what was then called “amnesty.” But that did not stop or benefit the millions of immigrants who came later.
The Coronavirus pandemic has shown the extraordinary value of immigrants, from their contributions to science and care for COVID-19 patients to the dangerous job of cleaning up. While millions of people are remote-working and remaining safely at home, foreign-born field workers never stopped harvesting so we can all eat. And we are grateful. Thirty-four percent of Americans want to see more immigration, not less. That is the highest approval rate since 1965, according to Gallup. Undocumented migrants create jobs and pay more than $11 billion per year in local and state taxes. And many, like the Dreamers, are in fact Americans but lack the documents to prove it. That’s why protecting them is urgent.
Of course we can’t give up before we start. The first option is to try to win the 60 Senate votes needed to legalize 11 million people. But if there’s no support in Congress in the short run, then we must try new ideas like those of Lorella Praelli and Frank Sharry and take it step by step. Like the popular Spanish saying, “Little by little the little far fills.” (Poco a poquito se llena el jarrito.)