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Will Biden immigration bill bail out green card hopefuls?

Among illegal immigrants in the US, many looked to a Biden win. True to his campaign promise, the new President lost no time in getting the engine started. His immigration bill made its way to the Congress on February 18th, 2021, hardly a month after he got to the White House.

However, a word of caution to those waiting, for while there are a lot of enticing features in the bill, many obstacles stand in the way of Biden breaking through with the immigration reform package that he has put forward.

Biden’s Bill, called The U.S. Citizenship Act of 2021 offers, among other measures, an eight year track to citizenship for over 11 million illegal immigrants. The bill also provides for Dreamers (children brought to the country by parents who were themselves illegal) as well as farm workers, to be put on a fast track to permanent residence.

The bill, if passed, would restore and expand programs for refugees and asylum seekers and bolster funding for economic development in Central America; undoubtedly a measure aimed at treating the cause of illegal immigration rather than the symptom.

On the surface, these moves should give anyone anxious to regularise their status – reasons to hope. My advice, however, is to – temper expectations. Already introduced to Congress, the bill must pass with unanimous consent in both houses of Congress, the House of Representatives and the Senate. Yes, the Democrats control the House and the Senate, but their majorities are just “too slim” – to pass anything as weighty as immigration reform.

In fact, the Democratic majority in the House is becoming somewhat worrisome.

Heading into the November 2020 elections, Democrats held a comfortable advantage (232-197). After elections, the lead significantly narrowed, to Dems 222 and Republicans 213.

President Biden further reduced this narrow lead by pulling two House members from an already depleted House of Representatives to form his Cabinet. The present Democratic count is 220.

With 218 being the number needed to maintain the majority and retain control of the House, the current margin is way too close for comfort. According to Mark Murray and Melissa Holzberg, NBC “even if Democrats do retain the House majority, Democrats are bound to need Republican help to pass big-ticket items, because it’s likely they’ll see defections from either progressives or moderates on any legislation.”

In the Senate, with its 50/50 split, the situation is hardly more reassuring. Vice-president, Kamala Harris, has the power to cast the tiebreaking vote, which would give Democrats the chance to pass legislation with a simple majority, 51/50. Unfortunately, most bills in the Senate require a 60 vote majority, or filibuster.

In respect of Biden’s immigration bill, “the Senate will not have the 60 Democratic votes needed to pass the measure with just their party’s support…” note two CNN journalists, Alvarez and Fox.

There is still another provision that can be considered for passing Biden’s immigration bill, that of reconciliation. Reconciliation is a budgetary process that is used to allow the Senate to push through certain bills with a simple majority rather than the 60 votes most bills need.

That process was used by Donald Trump in 2017 to give large corporations and the wealthy 2 trillion in tax cuts. Reconciliation can present two problems in regards to immigration. One, Senate rules are arcane and, outside of fiscal measures, restrictive of what can be considered in a bill. Selling immigration reform as a fiscal measure might, indeed, be a really hard sell.

Two, the next procedural hurdle to overcome for reconciliation to succeed is that every Democrat has to commit to the vote. If anyone in their ranks votes “no” the bill will not pass.

We are reminded when ex-President, Trump, used reconciliation to roll back the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare) Republican John Mc Cain (now deceased) responded with his thumbs down. Republicans lost the vote and Obamacare remained intact.

In the current atmosphere in the US, of deep polarisation and division, the fight to pass comprehensive immigration looks like the hill to die on. It seems, some of the hopefuls “without papers” do not yet understand this.

R.B. is from Trinidad, but for the last 17 years she has been living and working in the US illegally. Asked what she thinks Biden will do for her, she responded: “I think he will do something for us. After all he has the House and the Senate.”

M.D. too is living and working in the US illegally. In the 30 plus years since she left Grenada, both of her parents have died and she has not been able to attend their funerals. She is afraid to be hopeful. She remembers more than a decade ago when Barack Obama came to power. She was at her most hopeful then.

“I remember it clearly.” she said. “When he came he had the support of the House and Senate. He procrastinated and lost the opportunity. And 12 years later, I am still stuck here. I am glad Biden win but I am not holding my breath.”

President Obama, in 2013, was able to persuade 68 senators, including 14 Republicans, to support a comprehensive immigration bill. However, the effort died in the Republican-controlled House because Obama waited too long to address immigration. When he did – he had already lost his majority in the House.

The advice that is being given to Biden when it comes to immigration, is to take it easy, go piece by piece, to avoid the pitfalls of George Bush and Barack Obama before him. This is advice that Biden seems to be pretty open to. If he goes that piecemeal route, there is no question that Dreamers and farm workers will be at the front of the line.

The question is, what happens to the Dreamers’ parents, some of whom have been waiting for more than three decades? Are their children who they brought to the US, likely to get a pathway to citizenship, while parents remain in limbo?

Will there be yet another funeral back home that mom or dad cannot attend because they don’t have their green card?

Christelene Henry, is a Grenadian educator, currently working on a video documentary on women from the English-speaking Caribbean living illegally in the US