Should Democrats Gamble on Immigration Reform in 2021?

It may be now or never for Dreamers. Photo: Kena Betancur/AFP via Getty Images

The process of uniting Democrats around a budget reconciliation bill that centrists consider too fat and radical and progressives consider too slim and timid is already daunting. And now, a new complication looms: the possibility that immigration reform, thought to be an electoral deal-killer for vulnerable congressional Democrats, might be bundled into the package as well. NBC News has a report on that contingency:

Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin has been trying to grant young undocumented Dreamers a path to citizenship for two decades.

He believes he’s closer than ever to success.

But it all hinges on an arcane procedural decision in the hands of the Senate parliamentarian, who will rule on whether certain changes to immigration law are eligible for the filibuster-proof budget process that Democrats are using to pass a multitrillion-dollar bill.

“I’m losing sleep over it,” Durbin told NBC News. “It is the best opportunity we’ve had in 20 years.”

Arguably, a positive parliamentarian’s ruling would make it a morally obligatory initiative for Democrats who carefully positioned themselves as champions of immigration reform even as the Republican Party went on a nativist bender under Donald Trump. But you can be sure that it will be condemned as electorally risky for Democrats struggling to hang onto control of Congress.

To be sure, what Durbin is talking about is targeted immigration reform, not some wholesale “amnesty.” As NBC says, Democrats want to provide a path to citizenship for four categories of people: “DACA beneficiaries, temporary protected status recipients, farm workers and essential workers.” The Trump administration claimed to support permanent relief for Dreamers (another term for DACA beneficiaries) but basically just held them hostage for its border wall demands, and steadily reduced TPS eligibility, often with specious arguments about refugees being criminals or terrorists.

So if the parliamentarian doesn’t green-light the $100 billion Democrats put into the budget resolution that sets the parameters of the reconciliation bill, then presumably the “opportunity” Durbin talked about will go away and this issue will go on the back burner for a while. But if the rule-maker smiles on the idea as compliant with the Byrd rule requiring that reconciliation provisions be budget-germane, Democrats will have to make a difficult choice. Already, Republicans are going full demagogue on immigration heading toward 2022, in ads being run by House GOP Conference chair Elise Stefanik, as The Hill reports:

“Radical Democrats are planning their most aggressive move yet: a PERMANENT ELECTION INSURRECTION,” says one ad paid for by Stefanik’s campaign. “Their plan to grant amnesty to 11 MILLION illegal immigrants will overthrow our current electorate and create a permanent liberal majority in Washington.”

This ad takes an unsubtle allusion to the “replacement theory” beloved of racists everywhere and adds the clever twist of comparing it unfavorably to the January 6 insurrection incited by Donald Trump and increasingly embraced by Republicans. All it needs is a news hook to go viral, and a limited path to citizenship might provide it.

On the other hand, the odds of Democrats holding onto the House in the midterms are very limited. If they do, it will be because Joe Biden has become significantly more popular overall and because his agenda has energized Democrats who often fail to turn out in midterms when their party controls the White House. If they don’t, then the door will close on the ability of the Biden administration to enact significant legislation in the face of obstruction by a Republican Party bent on securing their own trifecta in 2024. So long as the GOP is in the grip of Trump and would-be successors to the MAGA mantle, you can forget about humane and rational treatment of immigrants and refugees until such time as Democrats control Washington again. So on this, as on so many other cherished progressive priorities, it’s probably now or never.

Should Democrats Gamble on Immigration Reform in 2021?