After U.S. Senate Parliamentarian’s ruling, New York City’s undocumented population push for immigration reform

The U.S. Senate Parliamentarian, an advisor on legislation, ruled on September 19 that the Democrats could not adopt immigration reform through reconciliation, the process to pass bills with a simple majority of 51 votes. 

Her decision complicates a path to citizenship for the country’s 10.5 million undocumented migrants that represented 3.2% of the total population in 2017, according to data from the Pew Research Center. In New York City, the ruling affects approximately 476,000 undocumented migrants that account for 5.4% of the population, as stated in the 2020 State of Our Immigrant City, a report by the Mayor’s Office of Immigrant Affairs.

After learning about the Parliamentarian’s resolution, Eva, a 31-year-old Dominican DACA recipient and mother of three children, aged 12, 10, and 5, was not surprised: “Honestly, it was something that was expected.”

Eva’s case exemplifies the push for immigration reform. When she was three years old, she came to New York City with a tourist visa, and settled permanently at the age of nine. She started working at 14, in a supermarket, and although she aspired to become successful, her mum’s undocumented status, as well as their family situation, prevented her from attending college. 

Eva defends that the lack of a pathway to citizenship shapes every aspect of life. When she and her younger siblings, now aged 28, 26, and 17, were children, her mother lacked health insurance, and every epileptic attack she suffered was a challenge. They were afraid to call the ambulance because of their age and her undocumented status. “We had to be her doctors, we learned how to take care of her,” she recalled.

Her story illustrates a broader issue. According to the State of Our Immigrant City Report, 46% of New York City’s undocumented migrants were uninsured, 39% more than its total population.

Joining other protesters, Eva marched on September 21 in Washington D.C. to achieve a post-reconciliation solution to immigration reform. The demonstration, called “Welcome Back Congress” and broadcasted through Facebook, was organized, among others, by Make the Road New York and the New York Immigration Coalition, organizations in defense of immigrants’ rights.  

«Welcome Back Congress» march / Eddie A. Taveras

Civil leaders like Murad Awawdeh, Executive Director of the Coalition, attended the march. In front of protesters shouting “We are home” on video, Awaedeh summarized one of the event’s main critiques: “We are America, Mister President. (…) We cannot be essential and at the same time deportable.”

Political leaders were also present. Bob Menéndez, a senator from New Jersey, defended on video that “We’re going to continue to fight till we find a pathway for each and every one of you to realize your American dream,” and Chuck Schumer, a senator from New York, said that “I was very angry, saddened and frustrated by the parliamentarian decision. But are we going to stop? No.”

«Welcome Back Congress» march / Eddie A. Taveras

Fear of arrest and deportation by the Immigration and Customs Enforcement —ICE— further erodes the undocumented population’s physical and psychological state. M., whose name is undisclosed for immigration reasons, is a 26-year-old Brazilian asylum-seeker who has been living in New York for the last two years. When asked about ICE, she said that: “We are always scared all the time. And that inflicts trauma (…) it has a really bad impact in our mental health.” 

Though ICE’s arrests in New York City have gradually decreased since 2017, from 7,968 to 1,517 in 2020, according to ICE statistics, removals were on the rise, from 2,006 in 2017 to 2,752 in 2019. The pandemic reduced this number in 2020 to 1,660, but panic persists. 

“ICE needs to be abolished. We have police officers; we don’t need ICE,” said Janay Cauthen, Acting Executive Director of Families for Freedom, a New York organization against deportation.

ICE’s reform is not the only demand of New York immigration advocates. When asked about alternative paths to reconciliation, Hasan Shafiqullah, Attorney in Charge from the Immigration Law Unit at The Legal Aid Society, a nonprofit organization based in New York City, said that passing the H.R 6, also known as The American Dream and Promise Act of 2021 and the H.R. 1603, also known as the Farm Workforce Modernization Act, in the Senate are two legislative priorities.

The Dream and Promise Act would grant certain immigrants a pathway to permanent residency, as the bill approved in the House of Representatives states. Those included would be DACA recipients like Eva, Temporary Protected Status holders, and people with Deferred Enforced Departure. The Farm Workforce Modernization Act, also approved in the House, would regularize the immigration status of undocumented farmworkers who meet certain requirements. 

As Shafiqullah acknowledges, both bills have to be adopted through the regular legislative process, which will require Republican support to circumvent the filibuster, the Senate tool that requires 60 votes to implement legislation. 

Bipartisan cooperation for immigration reform is the aspiration of some city advocates such as Eddie A. Taveras, New York State Immigration Director of FWD.us, a political organization for immigrant rights. “Congress can work together and get their act together and put forth a bipartisan, comprehensive immigration reform that is rooted in the dignity and humanity of people,” he defended.

The Parliamentarian’s opposition to immigration reform through reconciliation delays a permanent solution for undocumented migrants, but it’s not a dead end, according to activists like Eva and experts like Shafiqullah. Democratic leaders have committed themselves to find alternative solutions but, until they come, migrants and advocates will continue pushing. 

“We have to create a pathway to citizenship because at the end of the day, immigrants are not going anywhere,” concluded Cauthen. (CQ Conversation with Janay)

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