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Mary Mazzoni headshot

As the Battle Over U.S. Immigration Reform Heats Up, Business Stays Largely Silent

With real immigration reform on the table for the first time in decades, the fight is heating up from the halls of  Congress to the streets of the largest U.S. cities. The business community, however, has stayed largely silent. 
By Mary Mazzoni
American flag - immigration in the US immigration reform

With real immigration reform on the table for the first time in decades, the fight is heating up from the halls of  Congress to the streets of the largest U.S. cities. The business community, however, has stayed largely silent. 

On background: Immigration reform in the U.S.

U.S. President Joe Biden ran for office as a staunch opponent of Donald Trump's draconian immigration policies, including bans on travelersrestrictions on H-1B visas for highly-skilled workers, and the so-called “zero-tolerance” policy that resulted in thousands of children being separated from their parents at the U.S.-Mexico border.  

On his first day in office, President Biden signaled he would make good on his promises and sent an immigration reform bill to Congress that included a path to citizenship for millions of undocumented immigrants. Congressional Democrats introduced the U.S. Citizenship Act of 2021 in February, which was largely based on Biden's plan. Among other things, the legislation offers an eight-year path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants who were brought to the U.S. as children, those who have received Temporary Protected Status (TPS) for humanitarian reasons, and those considered essential workers. But the bill has been languishing in committee for months. 

The next big hope for immigration reform came with the Democrats' proposed $3.5 trillion budget reconciliation package. The reconciliation process allows certain legislation to bypass the filibuster and pass with a simple majority in the Senate, and when Democrats pushed to include immigration in their reconciliation package, many advocates saw it as a once-in-a-generation opportunity for reform. But many of those hopes were dashed last month when a Senate arbiter recommended against including immigration reform in the package, saying it fell outside the scope of reconciliation. Progressive lawmakers and frontline organizers vowed to keep fighting.  

The immigration reform battle heats up

The mounting humanitarian crisis in Haiti has added fuel to the fire. The assassination of the country's democratically elected president, Jovenel Moise, in July and a devastating earthquake in August sent thousands of people fleeing the country in search of safety and a better life. As many as 16,000 of them set up a makeshift camp in Del Rio, Texas, hoping to be granted asylum in the U.S. 

In late September, video surfaced of border patrol agents on horseback aggressively dispersing migrants in Del Rio, using their reins in lassoing and whipping motions toward the men, women and children as they fled. The footage appalled everyone from activists to White House officials, but by the last week of September the Del Rio camp was cleared. Some migrants were admitted into the U.S. temporarily, some were taken into custody, and thousands were deported under Title 42 of the 1944 Public Health and Service Act, an obscure rule Trump previously invoked to deport or deny entry to immigrants and asylum-seekers out of purported concern for stopping the spread of the coronavirus. 

Nearly 1 million people, primarily Haitians and migrants from Central America, have been deported under Title 42 in the last fiscal year, which spans both the Trump and Biden presidencies. 

The treatment of Haitian migrants, compounded by decades of frustration with the state of the U.S. immigration system, set off a wave of protests across the country over the past three weeks. 

Thousands of immigrants and their supporters gathered in Washington, D.C. on Sept. 21 to demand that immigration reform and key climate provisions remain in the proposed reconciliation bill. Two days later, activists gathered for a national day of action to promote immigration reform. Demonstrations continued last week, including one that shut down the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco. 

In Washington, the U.S. special envoy to Haiti resigned on Sept. 23., followed by State Department legal adviser Harold Koh this week, both citing the "inhumane" deportation of Haitians under Title 42. The Congressional Black Caucus also met with White House officials about the treatment of Haitian migrants.

But where is the business community? 

On paper, the U.S. business community has historically supported immigration reform. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce, for example, which tends to lean conservative, lists "commonsense immigration reform" as one of its policy priorities. Many businesses went a step further in recent years and spoke out publicly against Trump's harsh measures.

More recently, in January more than 180 organizations — including big businesses like Amazon, Target and Google — released a statement in favor of bipartisan immigration reform under Biden. A month later, after a bipartisan pair of senators introduced the latest iteration of the Dream Act, which creates a path to citizenship for some undocumented people brought to the U.S. as children, a coalition of more than 100 companies and trade associations urged Congress to pass it. Even as congressional Democrats worked to pass the more robust U.S. Citizenship Act, many kept the door open for a piecemeal approach to reform, a sentiment that also seemed to resonate with big businesses. 

Since those bipartisan talks fizzled out, however, it has been largely crickets on the issue from the private-sector side. Why is that? Immigration reform is still hugely popular, even among conservative Trump voters, and under this administration there's actually a real shot at getting it done. So, why would business leaders miss the chance to lobby in favor of policies they've claimed to support for years? 

The clear answer: They're already lobbying for something else — or more specifically, against the next potential home for the immigration package: the budget reconciliation bill. 

When Biden's $2 trillion American Jobs Plan was whittled into the $1.2 trillion bipartisan infrastructure package sitting in Congress today, Democrats looked to reconciliation to pass their other priority reforms. Those include many of the climate action priorities that were stripped from the $2 trillion plan, along with immigration reform and key expansions to the social safety net, to be paid for by increased taxes on corporations and wealthy individuals. 

In recent weeks, big businesses have launched what Washington Post reporters called a "massive lobbying blitz" against the reconciliation deal. The U.S. Chamber even backed off the bipartisan infrastructure package, something it had firmly supported, for fear it could lead the reconciliation to pass. “The events of the last few days make it all the more crucial that everyone across the business community does everything in our power to ensure the reconciliation bill does not pass," the Chamber's chief policy officer, Neil Bradley, wrote in a letter to the board on Monday that was obtained by Axios

Those are pretty hefty words considering Democrats may still incorporate immigration reform, despite the Senate arbiter's recommendation, and that reconciliation seems the only way to pass climate legislation that will limit U.S. emissions in line with the Paris Agreement, something else the business community claims to support

For their part, Democrats in Congress seem undeterred, vowing to find a way to pass immigration reform, even if it can't be included in the reconciliation bill. “We’re not going to take no for an answer," Sen. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.) told the New York Times

“People are upset, angry, determined,” added Frank Sharry, the director of the pro-immigrant organization America’s Voice. “We’re optimistic we can get to yes. If that doesn’t happen, then we’ll take it from there.”

Image credits: Colin Lloyd and Todd Trapani via Unsplash 

Mary Mazzoni headshot

Mary has reported on sustainability and social impact for over a decade and now serves as executive editor of TriplePundit. She is also the general manager of TriplePundit's Brand Studio, which has worked with dozens of organizations on sustainability storytelling, and VP of content for TriplePundit's parent company 3BL. 

Read more stories by Mary Mazzoni