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Democrats try to push forward with plan to legalize 8 million immigrants through budget bill

The slim Democratic majority in Congress is pushing forward with an ambitious plan to legalize an estimated 8 million immigrants living in the U.S. without legal status through a budget bill that would circumvent the 60-vote threshold typically needed to pass major legislation in the Senate.

Democratic staff met with the Senate parliamentarian on Friday to try to convince her that the massive legalization program can be enacted through the budget reconciliation process, a procedure that allows spending bills to pass the Senate with a simple majority, congressional officials told CBS News. Republican staff were expected to argue against the proposal.

It's the Senate parliamentarian who rules on whether an element of legislation can be allowed in a budget bill. The parliamentarian has to determine whether the provision has a direct budgetary impact.

If successful, the legalization plan would allow undocumented immigrants who came to the U.S. as children, Temporary Protected Status (TPS) beneficiaries, farmworkers and other pandemic-era essential workers to apply for permanent U.S. residency, or green cards, Democratic Senate aides said.

Democratic aides said their proposal complies with the reconciliation rules. Historically, provisions that the Senate parliamentarian determined would have an "incidental" impact on the budget have collapsed, including a plan to raise the minimum wage in February.

"We believe that passing this legislation through reconciliation is permissible because the bill's budgetary effects are a substantial, direct and intended result, and that the non-budgetary effects do not so disproportionately outweigh the budgetary effects as to make them merely incidental," one aide said.

The budgetary impact, according to the Democratic aides, is that the legislation would allow immigrants to apply for permanent residency, which would qualify them for federal benefits, like Affordable Care Act healthcare subsidies, Medicaid, refundable tax credit, Supplemental Security Income and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), or food stamps.

The Congressional Budget Office's preliminary estimate predicts that this would increase budget deficits by $139.6 billion over a 10-year period, the aides said. This would amount to a "substantial and direct budgetary impact," the aides added.

The Democrats' argument, the aides noted, does not include the "huge" boost they believe the legalization program will inject into the U.S. economy.

Democratic Congressman Raul Ruiz, chair of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, said "this is the moment" to place millions of undocumented immigrants on a pathway to U.S. citizenship, highlighting their contributions to the U.S. effort to fend off the coronavirus pandemic.

"The urgency has reached its peak in light of this pandemic and seeing how Dreamers, farmworkers and essential workers contributed to the safety and sustainability of our society while taking on the biggest brunt of hospitalizations and deaths," Ruiz, a California Democrat, told CBS News.

Congressional officials said they could receive a decision from the Senate parliamentarian as early as next week. If the first bid is not successful, Ruiz said Democrats will present a new case to the parliamentarian to vouch for the legalization program's inclusion.

Even if the parliamentarian signs off, the Democrats' legalization proposal is unlikely to garner any support from congressional Republicans, who have denounced it as "amnesty." 

In a 16-page internal outline obtained by CBS News, Republican staffers in Congress said a large-scale legalization program could increase unemployment and lead to fraudulent green card applications. They also criticized Democrats for proposing to legalize undocumented immigrants amid a 21-year high in migrant apprehensions along the U.S.-Mexico border.

"Democrats cannot pass mass amnesty through regular order in the Senate due to the filibuster, so they are attempting to bypass the need for cloture and are using the reconciliation process to enact the largest mass amnesty in history," the Republican outline said.

Democrats, however, believe historical precedent is on their side, citing a 2005 budget reconciliation bill that would have increased the number of green cards available to immigrants. The final bill did not include this provision, but the Republican-led Senate passed the version with the green card increase.

During their call with reporters on Thursday, the Senate Democratic aides conceded that the legalization program, if enacted, would be a massive operation for the Department of Homeland Security, which reviews green card petitions.

"It will be a significant undertaking for them to process potentially millions of applications," one aide said.

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