A Plan B for Immigration Reform

Senate Republicans are likely to block Biden’s proposal, so let’s concentrate on protecting as many people as possible without a comprehensive bill.

by Jorge Ramos

It was 5 a.m. on Jan. 20. Joe Biden and Kamala Harris hadn’t even been sworn in, and yet the incoming administration had just published its plan for an ambitious immigration reform bill. Mr. Biden was fulfilling his pledge to send to Congress, within his first 100 days as president, a bill that would give the nation’s nearly 11 million undocumented immigrants a road map to citizenship.

But for Latinos, who make up roughly half of America’s overall immigrant population, the fear is that the Biden-Harris plan will turn out to be yet another false hope.

We’ve seen many immigration reform efforts fail in recent years. In 2005, Senator John McCain sponsored a bill with bipartisan support that included provisions for the legalization of undocumented people, but it went nowhere. In 2006, Congress was unable to come to an agreement on the different immigration reform bills passed in the Senate and the House.

Another reform plan was discussed in the Senate in 2007, but never voted on. In 2013, the Senate passed a major immigration bill, heavily supported by a bipartisan group of senators known as the Gang of Eight, but John Boehner, the Republican speaker of the House at the time, cruelly blocked the bill from ever coming to a vote.

The last time a significant immigration reform package was passed was in 1986, under Ronald Reagan. Three million undocumented people received what at the time was called “amnesty.” But the bill failed to both integrate these immigrants into American society and stop millions more from coming in.

Undocumented immigrants living in the United States create jobs and pay over $11 billion a year in state and local taxes. These immigrants, including the so-called Dreamers, are full-fledged Americans, even though they don’t have the official documents to prove it. That’s why protecting them is so important.

President Biden’s new proposal allows undocumented people to apply for green cards after five years, as long as they pay their taxes and pass criminal and national-security background checks. After three more years, those who demonstrate knowledge of English and meet other requirements can apply to become citizens.

“This is the most wide-ranging plan I’ve seen in the many years I’ve been fighting for immigration reform,” Senator Bob Menendez told me in a recent interview. He expects to introduce the proposal in the Senate in the next few weeks.

Which is precisely when all hope will be lost.

While the Biden-Harris bill should be able to pass the Democratic-led House, in such a polarized country, it will be almost impossible for the 50 Senate Democrats to find 10 Republicans willing to help them overcome the filibuster and pass a bill on a controversial topic like immigration.

Even if Democrats manage to eliminate the filibuster and get their immigration reform bill passed with a simple majority, problems will still emerge.

So, what is our Plan B?

“Right now, Democrats have the slimmest of majorities,” Frank Sharry, the founder and executive director of the immigrant advocacy organization America’s Voice, told me. “Let’s be realistic. The G.O.P. is now the party of Trump, power, plutocracy and racism.”

Mr. Sharry thinks that “Democrats will have to go it alone if they want to produce change that changes lives,” and that if the Biden-Harris bill can’t pass Congress now, a new legislative strategy should be adopted to secure a win for America’s undocumented immigrants, even a partial one.

“We are absolutely committed to a path to citizenship for the 11 million,” Lorella Praeli, the president of the progressive advocacy group Community Change Action, who earlier in her career worked as an activist for undocumented immigrants in Connecticut, wrote to me in an email. “But we’re pivoting from the all-or-nothing approach that hasn’t worked in the past.”

Instead of trying to get the 60 votes needed to pass a comprehensive immigration reform bill, Ms. Praeli says, Democrats should seek to use budget reconciliation — a procedure that allows certain spending measures and programs to pass the Senate by a simple majority — to legalize “as many people as possible,” including essential workers, Dreamers, farmworkers and those immigrants who have been granted temporary protected status by the government.

This strategy is somewhat similar to the one that in 2012 resulted in the DACA program, which today protects approximately 700,000 undocumented people, known as Dreamers, from deportation, allowing them to work in the United States legally.

When the Dreamers, young people who were brought to the United States illegally by their parents, realized that Congress wouldn’t support the legalization of their status, they put major pressure on President Barack Obama to protect them with an executive action that is still in effect today. DACA completely changed their lives.

A Plan B for immigration reform should seek the same goals: Legalize or protect as many immigrants as possible until Democrats can secure enough votes in Congress to pass a comprehensive reform bill. This is not the ideal solution, but this is where we are.

The pandemic has revealed just how much immigrants — both documented and undocumented — contribute to the well-being of the United States, whether through their scientific contributions or through the care they provide to Covid-19 patients and their willingness to take on often-perilous cleaning jobs. While millions of Americans have been able to work safely from home, migrant farmhands have continued to sow and harvest the crops we eat.

Fortunately, it’s clear that increasing numbers of Americans recognize the value of these contributions: According to Gallup, 34 percent would prefer to see more, not less, immigrants in this country — the largest support for expanding immigration that Gallup has recorded since 1965.

It’s important not to admit defeat on immigration reform before we even start fighting. Plan A is to try to get the 60 Senate votes necessary to legalize all of America’s 11 million undocumented immigrants. Failing that, we must explore other options, such as those proposed by Ms. Praeli and Mr. Sharry — and proceed toward full legalization in steps.

As the well-known Latin American saying goes: “Poco a poquito, se llena el jarrito.” Drop by drop, we can fill the pot.


Jorge Ramos (@jorgeramosnews) is an anchor for the Univision network, a contributing opinion writer and the author of, most recently, “Stranger: The Challenge of a Latino Immigrant in the Trump Era.”

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