By Tawheeda Wahabzada – New York Times Opinion Section Contributor
I lived in the United States for 25 years as a DACA recipient with the hope of immigration reform. When I learned the full extent of my former immigration status, I continuously waited for a solution that never occurred. So, I chose to leave the United States.
While DACA provided me with temporary relief, for which I am grateful, the Trump Administration exposed the fragility of stop-gap solutions.
With the new Biden Administration, DACA recipients and many undocumented immigrants can finally take a breath of fresh air, but we still wait anxiously for policies and reforms to unfold. Within the first few days of the new administration, President Biden has already used his executive powers to reverse some of the anti-immigrant policies that the Trump Administration has enacted. And while these executive orders are monumental, the future of legislative reforms, such as comprehensive immigration reform, remains uncertain.
The core purpose of a comprehensive immigration reform is to legalize undocumented immigrants, while addressing other fixes to the existing immigration system by improving pathways to legal immigration and enhancing border security measures. There have been attempts in both the Bush and Obama Administrations to push for comprehensive immigration reform, though they had never passed.
There are currently 48 seats in the senate that are held by Democrats and two seats held by independents who tend to caucus with the Democratic Party. And though the Democratic Party holds the majority in the House, there is an insufficient party majority in the Senate. That is, any major policy reform could easily die in the Senate as a result of a filibuster used by members of the opposition party—in this case, the Republican Party.
Filibusters: What Are They?
A filibuster is a tactic used to prevent a bill from moving forward to a vote. The cloture rule requires three-fifths approval to break a filibuster, which means in order to pass a comprehensive immigration reform, 60 votes will be needed to stop these delay tactics. But it is a risky game to assume that all 48 Democrats and two independents in the Senate will vote yes in order to stop the filibuster. On top of that, President Biden will still have to gather at least ten votes from Republican senators to allow the bill to be voted on.
This will-they-or-won’t-they, strategic, and tactical conundrum feels like a game of chess where the undocumented immigrants are treated as pawns in this political battlefield. And this is nothing new.
The future of long-term security and stability of undocumented immigrants are overlooked in this fixation of gathering enough votes. Politicians on both sides have become very removed from the reason and real beneficiaries of comprehensive immigration reform: undocumented immigrants who simply want a better status and long-term stability in a country they call home.
I had never been so fixated on filibusters until the lame-duck session of 2010. I was a junior at the University of Nevada in Reno, and at the time, I was hopeful that the DREAM Act would pass because the Obama Administration held the majority in both the Senate and the House. So, I started to plan when I could take my driver’s test and when I could study abroad—I started planning my life in this new reality after the DREAM Act had passed. But in December 2010, the DREAM Act was five votes short of breaking a filibuster in the Senate, killing the bill.
I don’t know what was more painful: my naïve expectations of potentially having a pathway to legalization, or the actual death of the DREAM Act. Either way, the DREAMers’ dream was once again deferred, all because of the filibuster.
Some argue that the purpose of a filibuster is to promote bipartisanship, however, bipartisanship is simply a pipedream when polarization in the Senate runs deep. Despite the good bipartisan intentions of the filibuster, the purpose of it in a polarized political climate ultimately backfires, as “it radically increases the value of holding the opposition together in a ‘block everything’ strategy, and thus radically increases the pressure on minority senators to resist the allure of compromise.”
Filibuster reform is key to the feasibility of comprehensive immigration reform along with other legislation pertaining to civil rights. Examples of filibuster reform can include reducing the threshold of 60 votes to 53. A full elimination of the filibuster is unattainable, as it is met with opposition from key Senate Democrats.
Without any surprise, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell has already criticized the Biden Administration’s comprehensive immigration proposal. President Biden’s proposal includes a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants; the timeline for citizenship status varies for DACA recipients, Temporary Protective Status holders, and other undocumented immigrants. The plan also includes the removal of the three- and ten-year bans where undocumented immigrants who left the country, like me, can re-enter as visitors or be able to return legally via employment or family sponsorship.
With an already-existing opposition from the Senate Republicans, comprehensive immigration reform is bound to die in the Senate again. And in this case, what kind of concessions will the Democrats make to win more Republican votes? With greater concessions, will that entail more immigrants being left out from the reform? Is it even a comprehensive immigration reform if more immigrants end up being left out? And in the midst of it all, again and undoubtedly, the human side of immigration reform will be forgotten in favor of making more concessions.
While the Biden Administration has an ambitious agenda within the first 100 days, the success of their agenda ultimately lies on whether or not their proposed legislation is filibuster-proof. Regardless, the Biden Administration’s comprehensive immigration reform plan will be faced with obstacles ahead.
Immigration: A Chess Game
Because of party politics and the polarization of the Senate, the future of immigration reform is uncertain, and people’s future, their prosperity, and their long-term security are back in the crosshairs. The idea of comprehensive immigration reform turns into a fight between the Democrats versus the Republicans. And in that fight, the human side of immigration reform seems to be forgotten. I think of DACA recipients—who were brought here as children—now graduating from college, starting a career, or are starting their own families in the US. I think of their parents, who wanted a better life for their children.
Comprehensive immigration reform isn’t a one-time solution, either. Immigration needs to be continuously revised to reflect emerging technologies and migration patterns. The last major immigration reform was the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986. Think about it: The last major immigration reform took place before the invention of the World Wide Web. We have to remember that policies need to be continuously revisited and updated to reflect the ever-changing socio-economic changes. It’s similar to seeing a physical for an annual physical, or to seek maintenance on a car to prolong its life.
Most importantly, we can’t forget the human side of immigration: People are coming for a better life for themselves and their families by making a home in a community where they end up uprooting their lives. What is more American than that?
If you enjoyed this article, you can read more bipartisan debates, op-eds, and interviews here. You can also read more from Tawheeda Wahabzada in her New York Times op-ed titled, “No Need to Deport Me. This Dreamer’s Dream is Dead.”
Tawheeda Wahabzada is a former DACA recipient based in Toronto, Canada. She grew up in Carson City, NV and is a graduate of the University of Nevada, Reno and the University of Texas at Austin. Prior to relocating to Toronto, she was based in Washington, DC, working for an international NGO. Tawheeda has also contributed to the New York Times' opinion section.