The exterior of the Tennessee Immigrant and Refugee Rights building. (Photo: John Partipilo)
On Sunday, immigrant-rights advocates were disheartened to learn that a pathway to citizenship for thousands of immigrants in Tennessee was excluded from the congressional Democrats $3.5 trillion social policy budget.
Earlier this month, the Democratic Party began the push to expand the nation’s social safety net focused on health care, child and elder care, education and climate change. Using a fast-track process known as budget reconciliation, Democrats could push the budget through with a simple majority and bypass filibuster attempts. Democratic leaders included a provision to create legal avenues for citizenship for immigrants, such as recipients of the Deferred Action Childhood Arrivals Program and essential workers.
But Senate Parliamentarian Elizabeth MacDonough ruled over the weekend that having immigration issues in the budget was “a policy change that substantially outweighs the budgetary impact of that change.”
“The reasons that people risk their lives to come to this country – to escape religious and political persecution, famine, war, unspeakable violence and lack of opportunity in their home countries – cannot be measured in federal dollars,” said MacDonough, dashing Democrats’ attempts to prevent Republicans from interfering in immigration reform.
Let me be clear: We are not deterred . . . Like the immigrants with TPS and DACA who are COVID frontline workers helping to keep our families alive, we will keep fighting to win a pathway to citizenship.
– Lisa Sherman-Nicolaus, TIRRC director
While disappointed, Tennessee immigrant-rights advocates still headed to Washington to participate in the Back to Congress Capitol March and to push for an alternative approach to provide a pathway for citizenship. On Monday, Tennessee Immigrant and Refugee Rights Coalition announced that 35 members, including DACA recipients and essential workers, were en route to Washington to join thousands of others to demand a pathway for citizenship for 91,000 Tennesseans.
“Let me be clear: We are not deterred. Like millions of immigrants who have given so much, especially during the pandemic, we will keep fighting. Like the undocumented farmworkers who kept harvesting food to make sure our families were well feed, we will keep fighting. Like the immigrants with TPS and DACA who are COVID frontline workers helping to keep our families alive, we will keep fighting to win a pathway to citizenship,” said Lisa Sherman-Nikolaus, TIRRC director, in a press release.
Frustrations about the decision also centered on MacDonough herself, who serves as a non-partisan, unelected official. MacDonough has twice ruled against Democratic initiatives including attempts to raise minimum wages to $15.
“I think that’s why people are frustrated because why can’t the majority of senators do what they want to do,” said Greg Siskind, an attorney at Siskind Susser PC, a Memphis immigation firm.
While the Democrats still hold a majority in the U.S. Senate, Vice President Kamala Harris can reject the parlimentarian’s decision, or fire MacDonough.
Otherwise, House Democrats seek to advance immigration through a provision in immigration law called “registry,” which allows certain immigrants who have resided in the U.S. past a certain date to apply for Lawful Permanent Resident status (LPR). To be eligible for citizenship through registry, an immigrant must have arrived in the U.S. by Jan. 1, 1972. In theory, the date can be changed again through a statute, according to Siskind.
Immigrants seeking legal venues for citizenship have experienced several setbacks this year. DACA recipients were granted temporary protected status under the Obama administration but had that status rescinded during the Trump administration. Once Joe Biden was elected president, the DACA program was reinstated by executive action, but a Texas federal judge ruled that the program was unconstitutional, leaving 13,000 eligible Tennesseans in limbo.
The Biden Administration has since appealed the decision.
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