Washington, DC – Legislators in the US House of Representatives this month advanced President Joe Biden’s ambitious $1.75-trillion domestic spending plan, which aims to expand the nation’s social safety net and combat climate change over the next 10 years.
Members of Biden’s Democratic Party had tried to include provisions in the legislation that would have provided a path to citizenship to an estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants living in the United States.
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But amid intense Republican opposition and Senate rules that prevent major policy changes on budget measures, congressional leaders instead included in the Build Back Better Act (BBB) a provision that would give undocumented migrants “parole”.
That is a temporary status that would shield people from deportation and give them US work permits, but falls short of granting them a pathway to citizenship – something immigrant advocates have pointed out Biden promised to do.
While the parole provision may be changed or scrapped altogether when the legislation gets to the US Senate, advocates say the issue demonstrates just how challenging it is to pass comprehensive immigration reform in Congress.
“I haven’t given up on including immigration legislation in the reconciliation bill because it’s been more than 30 years since Congress passed immigration reform and people are counting on us,” Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin said in a recent tweet. “With the BBB framework, we have an opportunity to address this lapse in leadership.”
What is parole?
Parole dates back to 1952 and was recently used to bring 65,000 Afghan refugees into the US after the Taliban took over Kabul, the capital of Afghanistan, in August.
Under the BBB bill’s proposal, approximately 6.8 million undocumented immigrants who have been living in the US before 2011 would be eligible to receive parole. The designation would give them protection from deportation for a period of five years, work permits, permission to travel abroad and the ability to get drivers’ licenses.
The process involves filing an application, paying a fee and passing a background check. Recipients would be able to renew their status for an additional five years. The programme would expire in 2031. The Congressional Budget Office estimates the provision would cost more than $100bn over the next 10 years.
According to an estimate by FWD.us, a pro-immigration group, the measure would include some 4.2 million essential workers and two million recipients of DACA, a programme that shields from deportation undocumented immigrants who came to the US as children, known as “Dreamers“.
“We’re fighting for citizenship,” said Murad Awawdeh, executive director of the New York Immigration Coalition. “The parole option is a last-ditch effort … to try to get something. But we’re going to fight for permanent protection, not something that is going to be gone in 10 years,” Awawdeh told Al Jazeera, adding that parole only gives people a temporary “sigh of relief”.
“We need a permanent solution and I think that’s the difference between parole and citizenship,” he said.
‘Not good enough’
The plan comes as Biden faces mounting pressure to make good on a campaign promise to overhaul the US immigration system and reverse some of his predecessor Donald Trump’s most hardline policies. Shortly after taking office in January, Biden presented a proposal to put undocumented migrants on an eight-year path towards citizenship.
Approximately 11 million undocumented immigrants currently live in the US, with the majority from Mexico followed by Central American nations. Many have been in the country for years or even decades. Immigrant advocates say that without status, they struggle to access jobs, healthcare, and education, and are more easily exploited, among other challenges.
Undocumented immigrants also face the very real threat of deportation.
The Trump administration expelled more than 440,000 people in four years, according to statistics from US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), while ex-President Barack Obama oversaw the deportations of more than three million during his eight years in office – an unprecedented figure that earned him the moniker “Deporter in Chief”.
That is why immigration advocates say parole falls short. “It’s not good enough,” said Hadi Sedigh, policy expert at National Partnership for New Americans (NPNA), an advocacy group.
“Good enough is ultimately what immigrants need to thrive and participate in society and be full members of the communities that they contribute to every day,” he told Al Jazeera. “This package clearly does not provide that. It’s a status that is guaranteed to expire in 2031 without a clear next step for the millions of individuals that will partake in this status.”
But amid record-high numbers of migrants attempting to seek asylum in the US through the southern border with Mexico, Republican legislators have been staunchly opposed to any form of status to undocumented migrants, arguing that it would encourage more people to come.
Still, on Monday, 91 Democratic members of Congress, including Jesus Garcia, Lou Correa, Adriano Espaillat, Grace Meng and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, urged Senate leaders to reinstate a pathway to citizenship in the spending bill.
“The House version of the BBB Act limits relief for certain undocumented individuals to a five-year parole status, yet another form of temporary reprieve,” they wrote in an open letter.
“We now write to urge you and the rest of our colleagues in the Senate to reinstate a pathway to citizenship for Dreamers, TPS holders, farm workers, and essential workers in the Senate’s version of the reconciliation bill.”
But the BBB bill passed in the House without a single Republican vote in favour, and in the Senate, which is split 50-50 between the two major parties, Democrats would need every legislator on board to pass the bill with a simple majority.
“The provisions in the Build Back Better Act are a vital step forward to fixing our broken immigration system, but we still have a lot of work to do,” Democrats wrote in their letter. “We urge the Senate to use their authority to include a pathway to citizenship.”