A number of organizations, lawmakers and prominent economists have urged congressional leaders to include immigration reform measures in the budget reconciliation package that will go before the Senate. They argue that a path to citizenship for Dreamers, Temporary Protected Status and Deferred Enforced Departure recipients, farmworkers and essential workers is important for our economy, will provide security to millions of immigrant families and will be a moral obligation to do something about our broken immigration system.
Budget reconciliation is a process where Congress passes bills that can only pass with a simple majority. The process has been used to enact a range of legislation including major deficit reduction bills, welfare reform, and tax cuts.
In a recent report, CBO estimated that one of the most significant Budget reconciliation immigration proposals would increase the federal deficit by $120 billion over a decade. This is a far cry from the $3 trillion package that was envisioned by House Democrats.
A group of more than 50 economists, including former President Obama’s top economic adviser Jason Furman, have urged congressional leadership to include a pathway to citizenship in any immigration legislation. These economists claim that such a move would boost the economy by creating jobs and lifting families out of poverty.
In addition to the human, civil and workplace rights that undocumented immigrants gain with citizenship, providing a path to citizenship boosts the economy by creating jobs, boosting wages and contributing to economic growth. Citizenship would also mean a doubling of federal taxes paid by unauthorized workers, which could reduce the federal budget deficit in the short term and add to federal social safety net programs in the long run.
Immigration reform advocates have tried to include a pathway to citizenship in the House Democrats’ original version of the Build Back Better Act (referred to as “Plan A”), but these provisions were rejected by the Senate parliamentarian because they violated the Byrd Rule, which prohibits inclusion of provisions that are not primarily budgetary in nature. As a result, House Democrats have proposed less ambitious immigration proposals that focus on work authorization for unauthorized immigrants and recapturing employment- and family-based visas.
The Budget Act of 1974 permits Congress to use reconciliation for a range of policy changes related to spending, revenues and the federal debt limit. The Senate can pass one bill per year affecting each of those subjects, although in practice it has often passed a single reconciliation bill affecting both spending and revenue.
In general, provisions included in a reconciliation bill must raise or cut revenue and have an impact that is “more than incidental.” That impact cannot be deemed to be non-budgetary in nature, which is limited by the Senate’s “Byrd Rule” (named after former Senator Robert Byrd).
Including immigration language in a budget reconciliation package is not a simple process. It requires approval from the chamber’s parliamentarian, Elizabeth MacDonough, who is responsible for advising the Senate on its rules and protocols. She is expected to nix any plans that include giving undocumented immigrants a pathway to citizenship. This would be a major policy change and one that could significantly increase the nation’s budget.
Reductions in costs associated with immigration policy have been a major focus for Congress and the President. A path to citizenship would give millions of unauthorized immigrants the civil, human, and workplace rights they need to thrive in our society.
This is a significant investment in America’s economy that has the potential to create countless jobs and strengthen our social safety net. It is also one of the most significant policies included in the President’s $3.5 trillion budget package that he is working on.
Using this process, Democrats could move forward on a number of major priorities from President Biden’s domestic agenda without having to go through the Senate filibuster. Nevertheless, it is important to understand that the process has limitations.