As the U.S. death toll from the coronavirus pandemic topped 456,000 and U.S. senators participated in a 15-hour overnight voting session, eight Democrats elicited outrage and condemnation from rights advocates and progressives for backing a GOP amendment to explicitly exclude undocumented immigrants—including essential frontline workers—from receiving direct Covid-19 relief.
"We expected this vote from Republicans, but seeing Democrats vote this way is a betrayal to the values they say they stand for."
The "vote-a-rama" on a series of nonbinding Republican amendments culminated in the Senate approving along party lines a budget resolution that could eventually enable congressional Democrats to implement President Joe Biden's $1.9 American Rescue Plan—which does not include relief checks for undocumented immigrants.
Given the limits of Biden's plan, the amendment introduced by Sen. Todd Young (R-Ind.) was seen as largely symbolic. Still, Democrats who voted for it—Sens. Maggie Hassan (N.H.), John Hickenlooper (Colo.), Mark Kelly (Ariz.), Joe Manchin (W.Va.), Gary Peters (Mich.), Kyrsten Sinema (Ariz.), Debbie Stabenow (Mich.), Jon Tester (Mont.)—swiftly came under fire and sparked warnings about what it could mean for more broadly immigration policy during Biden's first two years as president.
In a series of tweets, RAICES, the largest immigration legal services nonprofit in Texas, called out the senators by name for what the group described as a "betrayal."
Let us be clear on this. Not only do undocumented community members pay taxes, they are also suffering as much as anyone else because of this pandemic.
We expected this vote from Republicans, but seeing Democrats vote this way is a betrayal to the values they say they stand for.
— RAICES (@RAICESTEXAS) February 5, 2021
"There is a promise that has been made to the immigrant community for decades by Democratic leaders. A promise of a path to citizenship. A promise that recognizes the humanity of the immigrant community," the group said. "We as RAICES won't stop reminded them to #KeepThePromise. Enough is enough."
The amendment—co-sponored by Sens. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.), Josh Hawley (R-Mo.), and Tommy Tuberville (R-Ala.)—was ultimately removed from the final version of the relief package, according to Reuters. While welcoming that development, RAICES added that "needless to say, we still have to hold these eight Dems accountable for their vote."
Many critics recalled the widely condemned anti-immigrant policies of former President Donald Trump:
Good morning! Except to the 8 Dem Senators that voted for Trump-like policy to exclude undocumented workers from receiving a stimulus check.
— Cristina Jiménez (@CrisAlexJimenez) February 5, 2021
Update: final version of relief package got rid of amendment barring undocumented workers from receiving stimulus checks.
Still we won’t forget true 8 Dems that voted for this amendment
— Cristina Jiménez (@CrisAlexJimenez) February 5, 2021
The vote also served as a reminder of just how much undocumented immigrants contribute to the United States and have been negatively impacted by the pandemic—which Lonnie Scott, executive director of Progress Michigan, highlighted in a Friday statement blasting Stabenow and Peters for backing Young's amendment.
"Covid has impacted people in every community. The virus doesn't distinguish by immigration status—and neither should our response to it," Scott said. "Undocumented immigrants, just like everyone else in Michigan and around the country, have struggled with this pandemic for nearly a year and they need just as much help as anyone else."
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"Undocumented immigrants contribute taxes which are being used to fund this relief, and many work on the frontlines fighting this pandemic," he continued. "They deserve access to relief, but more than that they deserve our humanity. We're incredibly disappointed that Michigan's Democratic senators voted with Republicans to withhold this relief and urge them to reconsider their position and apologize to the communities who will be harmed by their decision."
Former 2020 Democratic presidential primary candidate Julián Castro—who previously served as mayor of San Antonio and U.S. secretary of Housing and Urban Development—echoed those points in Friday morning tweet:
Undocumented workers pay taxes. They disproportionately work essential jobs. They are part of our American community, and they too are hurting.
Disappointing to see some Democrats go hand-in-hand with the GOP on this. https://t.co/eOgh8wpr7P
— Julián Castro (@JulianCastro) February 5, 2021
Earlier this week, the Center for American Progress (CAP) noted that "five million undocumented immigrants—nearly 3 in 4 of those working—are on the front lines of the United States' response to the coronavirus pandemic, keeping all Americans safe, healthy, and supported." The group released a set of fact sheets detailing the contributions of undocumented workers in terms of construction (pdf), food chain supply (pdf), the care economy (pdf), and healthcare (pdf).
"These workers and sectors are vitally important to both the U.S. response to the pandemic and its recovery from the resulting economic devastation, and they cannot be jeopardized," wrote Nicole Prchal Svajlenka, associate director for research on the Immigration Policy team at CAP. "The Biden administration and the new Congress must pass protections for these critical workers, including by putting them and their families on a pathway to citizenship."
Tuesday, the same day CAP's research was released, Rep. Joaquin Castro (D-Texas)—Julián Castro's twin brother—joined with Sens. Alex Padilla (D-Calif) and Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) to publish an opinion piece on CNN's website arguing that "Covid relief is vital for undocumented essential workers."
"The daily danger essential workers face during this pandemic is more than a public health failure—it is a moral failure, and one we can finally address with a new president and Democratic majority in Congress," the trio wrote. "We must swiftly enact the full suite of rights, protections, and benefits all essential workers should have been guaranteed months ago, including by immediately acting to provide a pathway to citizenship for undocumented essential workers in the next Covid-19 relief package."
Covid relief is vital for undocumented essential workers
Read op-ed here: https://t.co/YUYzxTM9Jp
UndocuBlack Network calls for an essential worker bill that provides safety, security and benefits. pic.twitter.com/RWLnMDaSFH
— UndocuBlack Network (@UndocuBlack) February 2, 2021
More broadly, a majority of likely U.S. voters and the vast majority of Democrats "strongly" or "somewhat" support offering undocumented immigrants a path to citizenship, according to a poll conducted January 29 to February 1 by Vox and Data for Progress (DFP). There is even greater support for offering that opportunity those brought to the United States as children, a group widely known as Dreamers—a reference to the Dream Act, which was reintroduced Thursday.
"It is clear that only legislation passed by Congress can give Dreamers the chance they deserve to earn their way to American citizenship," said Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), incoming chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, who introduced the bill with Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.).
Noting that more than 200,000 people who would be affected by the legislation are "essential critical infrastructure workers," including 41,700 in the healthcare industry, Durbin declared that "it would be an American tragedy to deport these brave and talented essential workers in the midst of this pandemic."
"I first introduced the Dream Act 20 years ago, and I'll continue fighting until it becomes the law of the land," he added. "This is a matter of simple American fairness and justice."