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WASHINGTON – Senator Chuck Schumer, New York Democrat and majority leader, quietly considers trying to use a fast-track budget maneuver to legalize millions of undocumented immigrants if bipartisan talks on the path to citizenship fail collapse.

Mr Schumer has privately told members of the Hispanic Congressional caucus in recent weeks that he is ‘actively exploring’ whether it would be possible to tie a broad review of immigration laws to President Biden’s infrastructure plan and put it through a process known as budget reconciliation. , according to two people informed of his remarks.

The move would allow the measures to pass the evenly divided Senate with a simple majority of 51 votes, protecting them from filibuster and the 60-vote threshold to pass beyond one, which would otherwise require at least 10 Republican votes. .

The strategy is part of a back-up plan that Schumer has lined up in case talks between 15 senators from both sides do not lead to a compromise. As negotiations drag on with little agreement in sight, supporters increasingly fear Democrats are wasting a rare opportunity to legalize large swathes of the undocumented population as their party controls both houses of Congress and the White House.

“Democrats need to act,” says Sergio Gonzales, director of the Immigration Hub, which advocates for a pro-immigrant agenda in Congress. “The time is right. This year is the time. We must have citizenship this year.

Mr Biden’s immigration plan would provide a pathway to citizenship for around 11 million undocumented immigrants, and increase diversity visas and funding for border security. But, recognizing the long chances of achieving such significant changes, lawmakers are focused on crafting a set of smaller bills that would legalize around eight million or fewer undocumented immigrants.

They include legislation passed by the House to grant legal status to people brought to the United States as children, known as Dreamers; immigrants who have been granted temporary protection status for humanitarian reasons; and nearly a million agricultural workers.

Last month, President Nancy Pelosi endorsed the idea of ​​using reconciliation to push through immigration, citing the “budgetary impacts of immigration to our country.” Senator Patty Murray of Washington, Democrat No.3, spoke out in favor of the approach last week.

However, the strategy involves risks and its success is far from guaranteed.

Republicans involved in the talks warn that before Congress can act to tackle undocumented immigrants, it must tackle the massive influx of migrants across the southwest border. In March, border officials met nearly 19,000 children at the border – the highest number in a single month – most of them fleeing poverty and violence in Central America, although their numbers are declining.

“Before we can do anything meaningful on immigration, we are going to have to deal with the current border crisis,” said Senator John Cornyn, Republican of Texas, who participated in the bipartisan talks. “I don’t think the public is going to tolerate our ignoring this crisis, and it’s just going to get worse if we don’t deal with it.”

As for moving Mr. Biden’s immigration agenda forward through reconciliation, he said, “I think they’re dreaming; I do not think the parliamentarian will allow it. This is not really the point of reconciliation. “

To achieve this, Democrats would have to grapple with tough fiscal rules that limit what can be done as part of reconciliation. They demand that any included policy changes have a budgetary impact that is not just incidental. Other measures favored by liberal activists, such as an increase in the federal minimum wage to $ 15 an hour, were dismissed from a reconciliation package by the parliamentarian of the Senate, the ultimate arbiter of the rules, so as not to to have respected this bar.

Parliamentarian Elizabeth MacDonough recently said the reconciliation process could be used at least once more this fiscal year. The move was widely seen as paving the way for Democrats to move Mr. Biden’s infrastructure bill forward using the fast-track process. It also got progressive activists thinking about what else they could do, including action to tackle climate change, expand Medicare, and overhaul the immigration system.

A team of immigration activists and researchers as well as congressional assistants are exploring the issue, seeking the best way to present their case to Ms MacDonough, who declined to comment for this article. They found precedents, including that of 2005, in which changes in immigration policy were allowed as part of a budget reconciliation program, and they total the budgetary effects of the immigration proposals – which total tens of billions.

Researchers picked up supportive quotes from Republicans in 2005, when they gained approval to include a measure to claw back unused visas for highly skilled workers in a reconciliation package. Mr Cornyn hailed the move at the time as a way to “keep jobs here in America, rather than exporting them to countries like India and China.”

Pro-immigration group has hired Kevin Kayes, a former deputy Senate deputy, to help refine the procedural argument in favor of allowing the maneuver this year.

“These arrangements are a precedent for us,” said Kerri Talbot, deputy director of the immigration center. “A lot of the things we’re trying to do now relate to what was approved in 2005.”

Ms Talbot says she believes the total budgetary impact of the immigration bills under consideration is high enough to meet the standard of reconciliation.

“We are certainly in the tens of billions. We think we pass this test, ”she said.

The estimated cost of the legalization measures passed by the House is approximately $ 40 billion over 10 years.

Immigration advocates are also pushing for a fast-track path to citizenship for the more than five million unauthorized immigrants who are essential workers, which is likely to have an even greater budgetary impact on benefits. health care, Medicaid spending and tax credits.

Twenty-two Democrats, including four senators, recently wrote a letter to Mr Biden urging him to include an immigration overhaul in his infrastructure package. Many fear losing control of Congress in the 2022 midterm election and fear the Supreme Court will overturn former President Barack Obama’s protections for dreamers.

“We have to seize this opportunity, this term, to finally do what the American people want us to do, which is to adopt immigration reform,” said Representative Joaquin Castro, Democrat of Texas and one of the authors of the letter, in an interview. “I don’t think Republicans should be able to run the clock on this term before passing meaningful immigration reform through the Senate.”

Yet not all Democrats are likely to support a one-sided approach. Arizona Democrat Senator Kyrsten Sinema is co-sponsoring legislation with Mr Cornyn to respond to the growing number of migrants at the southern border by funding four regional processing centers in high traffic areas of border patrols and in improving the capacity of the administration to deal with these problems. influx.

For now, Sen. Richard J. Durbin, the No.2 Democrat who has pushed for years for a path to citizenship for dreamers, has said he is focused on passing a bill bipartisan on immigration and that Mr. Schumer had encouraged him to work. to reach an agreement with the Republicans.

“We agree on a bipartisan basis, we need to reform the system,” Durbin said.

Republican Senator Thom Tillis of North Carolina, another of the 15 senators involved in the immigration talks, said he believed trying to use the reconciliation process for immigration reform would be a “disaster”.

But Mr Tillis said he believes a bipartisan deal pairing a path to citizenship for Dreamers with greater investment in border security is still possible and may be getting closer.

“The border crisis is indisputable – even the President now admits it – so if we can work on that, then work on some of the path options that I have supported in the past, I am cautiously optimistic,” he mentionned.

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