'We can't wait': Immigration advocates worry time is running out to pass a pathway to citizenship

WASHINGTON – Glo Choi never thought he would fly.

Buying a plane ticket. Going to the airport. Sitting in a plane. Landing in a new city in a couple of hours. It all seemed like a dream.

Choi, 29, is undocumented. He thought his immigration status would keep him from the simple pleasure of taking a trip by air, of visiting friends and family.

But last week, Choi hopped on a plane from Chicago to Washington, where he stood on a stage in Lafayette Square and spoke before hundreds of immigrants, activists and allies, urging President Joe Biden and Democrats to include a pathway to citizenship in the "reconciliation" budget package. 

"I want to live. I want to do more than dream,” says Glo Choi, 29, who came to Lafayette Square in Washington on Oct. 7 to urge leaders to overhaul the immigration system.

“When I first joined the (undocumented) community, I didn't know that there was more than just dreaming. I thought dreaming was just something I did at night when I wanted more than the shambles that I was living with on a day-to-day basis,” he said from stage. “I didn't know that there was more to life than that. But now I want to live. I want to do more than dream.”

Choi is one of millions of people in the USA without legal status who are in limbo as Democrats struggle to reach consensus on sweeping immigration changes.

Congressional Democrats have faced several setbacks in their attempts to include immigration proposals in Biden's $3.5 trillion budget package, and advocates said time is running out to pass comprehensive reform before next year's midterm elections.

“We can’t wait. ... Now's the time that Congress and the president and vice president have to make citizenship for all a reality in this country,” said Alonzo Washington, chief of federal policy for CASA, an immigrant rights organization. 

Activists are frustrated with the progress, questioning whether Democrats and Biden have the political will to deliver on the campaign promises they made related to immigration. 

“What I want to make clear to people is that just because Biden is president, it's not like all undocumented people are just like ‘OK, I'm good,’ ” said Bruna Sollod, communication director for United We Dream and a recipient of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, a policy that protects those brought to the USA illegally as children from deportation. 

A push to use reconciliation as a vehicle for immigration reform

In their effort to include a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants in the budget package, Senate Democrats presented two proposals last month to Senate Parliamentarian Elizabeth MacDonough. MacDonough, a nonpartisan, unelected staff member, determines whether policies included in the reconciliation package abide by the Senate's Byrd Rule, which states only policies that have a direct impact on the federal budget can be included.

Reconciliation is a special process that essentially makes it easier for legislation to pass the Senate. The process allows for tax, spending and debt limit bills to be expedited by sidestepping typical congressional holdups and requires a simple majority of votes, rather than the typical 60, to pass.

The first proposal includes a pathway to citizenship for farmworkers, essential workers,  immigrants with Temporary Protected Status and undocumented individuals who were brought to the USA as children (sometimes called "Dreamers," based on legislation called the DREAM Act, which never passed Congress). MacDonough rejected the proposal, saying in her ruling that the policy impact outweighed the budget impact.

Days after that ruling, Democrats presented MacDonough with a second plan that would have changed an immigration registry date that could have led to a pathway to citizenship for millions. That, too, was rejected.

The options to move forward on immigration are limited, and many advocates and some congressional Democrats see the reconciliation process as the best option in a divided Congress. They have urged Democrats to ignore MacDonough's rulings and include the pathway to citizenship in the bill. 

“This is the closest that I feel the movement has been to ensuring a pathway to citizenship happens,” Choi said in an interview with USA TODAY, noting Democrats control both chambers in Congress in addition to the White House.

Immigration activists rally near the White House on Oct. 7, 2021.

Dozens of immigrant rights organizations have hosted demonstrations outside the Capitol and the White House, where liberal lawmakers made speeches supporting immigration reform.

“I’m not gonna let any damn parliamentarian tell me how to do my job," Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., said at a rally Sept. 30, vowing to find a way to include immigration in the package.

Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, D-Ariz., a moderate who has been at the center of discussions on the $3.5 trillion bill, was confronted by a handful of immigration activists urging her to support a pathway to citizenship in the package. The small group followed the senator into a bathroom.

"We knocked on doors for you to get you elected,” an activist told Sinema in a video posted by LUCHA (Living United for Change in Arizona), a grassroots advocacy organization. “Just how we got you elected, we can get you out of office if you don't support what you promised us.”

Sollod said that although Republicans have come to the table on immigration in the past, there seems to be no bipartisan support for immigration reform this time around. Reconciliation puts the power in the hands of the Democrats, she said. 

“If Democrats walk away without delivering citizenship this year, they have only themselves that are responsible for that,” Sollod said. “American citizens who are voting in 2022 and 2024, they're not going to remember the parliamentarian. They won't know her name. They'll just remember, did this happen? Did citizenship get delivered or did it not?

“I think we're at a real turning point in terms of, can the Democrats show the American people that they can deliver on their promises?” Sollod said.

Biden’s messaging stays the same, but advocates worry about willpower

Since Day 1 of his presidency, Biden has repeatedly said he supports a pathway to citizenship, outlining what he would like to see in sweeping immigration legislation. 

Such comprehensive legislation was never brought up in Congress. 

Advocates said words aren't enough, and they're waiting to see whether the president will use his leverage to force congressional action.

The House passed two separate bills that would offer a pathway for farmworkers and DACA recipients. Those bills have yet to be brought up in the Senate and face little chance of passage.

In late July, the president surprised advocates by saying, “We should include in the reconciliation bill the immigration proposal.” Biden has not commented on the Senate parliamentarian’s rulings.

Days before the parliamentarian's second ruling, Esther Olavarria, deputy director for immigration at the White House’s Domestic Policy Council, told Bloomberg Government that “all of our eggs, all of our effort is in the reconciliation process.” However, she noted other options to provide protection from removal and allow employment are on the table if immigration reform is not included in the bill.

White House press secretary Jen Psaki said at a news briefing last week that Biden and Democratic lawmakers are "absolutely committed" to passing immigration reform, but they will "have to press forward and work to find the vehicle." Psaki did not expand on what other options could look like.

"What these activists are doing is great," Psaki said. "They're out there advocating for putting in place long-overdue reforms. We agree they need to be put in place, and we need to keep pressing to get the job done."

In the meantime, the Biden administration is trying to temporarily protect undocumented migrants. 

The Department of Homeland Security announced in late September that it would "preserve and fortify" DACA and exercise “prosecutorial discretion” for undocumented individuals who came to the USA as children.

Advocates said Biden has said all the right things, but the administration’s actions have fallen short.

During a rally in Georgia this year, protesters heckled Biden, calling on him to end private detention facilities, including those that house immigrants detained by Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

"There should be no private prisons, period, none, period. … They should not exist," Biden agreed with the protesters. "And we are working to close all of them." 

Sollad noted that Biden has yet to eliminate any. Advocates have argued that many immigrants have experienced abuse and poor conditions in privately ran detention facilities.

Biden has kept in place a Trump-era policy called Title 42, which allows Customs and Border Protection to expel immigrants to avoid the spread of COVID-19. Immigration activists have been critical of the policy. Last month, a judge ordered the Biden administration to stop expelling migrant families under the policy. 

“Has the president done enough up until now? In my view, he has,” Frank Sharry, executive director for America’s Voice, said of getting immigration reform passed.

Sharry noted the "moment of truth" will come in a couple of weeks.

“Will he do enough when push comes to shove, if push comes to shove, if the parliamentarian rules against protections for immigrants, and Democrats have the majority in the House and Senate and reconciliation goes through, will they use their power to make sure it happens or will they hide behind the parliamentarian advisory opinion?” Sharry said.

Immigration activists rally near the White House on Oct. 7.

Do Democrats have a Plan C for immigration reform?

Democrats haven’t given up trying to get protections for undocumented immigrants in the budget package.

They are looking into a parole option for individuals who arrived in the USA without legal status before Jan. 1, 2011. Parole would protect millions of undocumented people from being deported and allow them to work in the USA.

Some advocates maintain that parole does not go far enough. Sharry said there is overwhelming support by the American public to offer a permanent, legal pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants.

“Republicans have been ruthless in their exercise of power in order to represent their people,” Sharry said. “We want the Democrats to be ruthless in their exercise of power, so that they deliver for their people."

Some lawmakers said they will not support the budget bill if immigration is not included.

Reps. Adriano Espaillat, D-N.Y.; Jesus García, D-Ill.; and Lou Correa, D-Calif., wrote in an op-ed on The Hill website last week that “it would be morally reprehensible, fiscally irresponsible and a grave disappointment to every single undocumented immigrant in this country for this Congress to once-again leave our most vulnerable immigrant communities behind – and we simply won’t stand for it.”

Advocates and some Democrats want the parliamentarian’s decision overruled.

“In order to overrule a parliamentarian, it is not just waving a magic wand,” Psaki said during a news briefing last week. “It requires a majority of votes in the Senate, and it requires the vice president.”

Choi hopes lawmakers will recognize how people depending on the stalled legislation are affected.

“There is no right way (of immigrating) when we're talking about survival and opportunity and what's best for our communities,” said Choi, whose family immigrated from Seoul, South Korea, to the USA in 1996 on a visa.

His family, Choi said, overstayed its visa after his sister was diagnosed with autism. He said they stayed because his sister has access to better care, though she can't access all she needs because they are undocumented.

“At the end of the day, it was really tough being here," he said. "Because we're undocumented, we can't get access to a lot of resources. So that's why I'm here fighting for it, for her, for people who are voiceless who can't be here today.”

Choi said he hopes he can trust Biden and his allies on Capitol Hill to finally see immigration reform passed.

“I think too many times, our communities have been told and promised, and yet we're still left without citizenship,” Choi said. “It's a matter of, yes, I want to be able to trust you. But when we're still undocumented, it's really hard to take that to heart. We need to see those promises really being put into action.”