The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

In Schumer’s Brooklyn neighborhood, and in migrant communities across the U.S., hopes that the Senate majority leader can deliver immigration reform

Maria Mejia, who during the pandemic started a business cooking and delivering food in Queens, dreams of being a U.S. citizen. (Jeenah Moon for The Washington Post)

NEW YORK — A 39-year-old man was painting walls last month in the Brooklyn high-rise where Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) lives. The house painter is from Guatemala, runs his own business and is raising three U.S. citizen children. But he's undocumented.

Around the corner, another man in the same legal situation was installing central air-conditioning in a fancy brownstone. He has not been able to return to Mexico since he crossed the border years ago, not even for his mother’s funeral.

And on the edge of Prospect Park, coming off his shift was a man who sent two daughters to college while working as the neighborhood’s handyman, tossing garbage, unclogging toilets and repairing windows during the pandemic. He’s close to retirement age but has no papers.

All are waiting for Schumer.

The fates of approximately 11 million immigrants in the United States illegally are in the hands of the U.S. Senate, where Schumer is leading Democrats in a precarious bid to pass a budget that would introduce sweeping changes to health care, the tax code and education. And it would grant “lawful permanent status” to undocumented immigrants, putting them on the path to U.S. citizenship.

Schumer said in an interview that he hopes to cover as many undocumented immigrants as possible in the $3.5 trillion budget plan that Senate Democrats adopted last month. Lawmakers and legislative aides are furiously working to produce drafts of the bill for the caucus to review by Sept. 15.

“This is the best chance we have,” Schumer said. “We’re fighting every day to make it happen.”

The House passed a pair of bills in March that would have legalized millions of immigrants, but those measures had little hope in the Senate, where Republicans and Democrats are divided 50-50 and bills need 60 votes to pass. But the Senate can pass a budget bill with a simple majority, using an arcane legislative procedure called “reconciliation,” which must meet strict standards policed by the Senate parliamentarian and survive the political infighting that has already begun. The vice president breaks the tie.

Passage is far from assured, but Democrats unanimously adopted the budget plan hours after they voted for the bipartisan infrastructure bill, and progressive Democrats say they will not vote for one without the other.

The Democrats’ budget resolution instructed the Senate Judiciary Committee to write legislation that would create a path to legal residency for “qualified” immigrants. Among those fighting to be included in that category, which has not been defined, are “dreamers,” who arrived in this country as children; immigrants with “temporary protected status” because of wars or disasters in their homelands; farmworkers; and the pandemic’s essential workers. Many have lived here for years, even decades.

“Schumer is the hombre. He’s the guy,” said Erik Villalobos, a communications manager for the National TPS Alliance, which represents thousands of immigrants with temporary protected status who are unable to apply for citizenship. “All this depends on him.”

Democratic divisions emerge after Senate adopts $3.5 trillion budget

Schumer cannot do this alone — Democrats must stay united, and once the budget bill is ready, it will face the scrutiny of Senate Parliamentarian Elizabeth MacDonough, a nonpartisan employee who referees the chamber’s rule disputes. She can strip immigration from the reconciliation bill if she decides it doesn’t have a sufficient impact on the budget, as she did with the minimum-wage increase in the covid relief plan passed this year. Some wanted to fire her then, but Democratic leaders did not try to defy her.

Schumer would not say what he will do if the parliamentarian strikes immigration from the budget resolution.

“We hope she’ll say yes,” he said in an interview.

The possibility of immigration reform is so close — yet so tenuous — that many find it difficult to believe this could be the year.

Schumer has been trying to pass an immigration bill since he helped to broker the last major amnesty in 1986, when he was a young congressman from Brooklyn sharing a cockroach-infested apartment on the Hill with another negotiator, then-Rep. Leon Panetta (D-Calif.). In part because of Schumer’s skill at reaching a compromise, Republicans and Democrats ultimately voted to grant legal residency to 2.7 million unauthorized immigrants and President Ronald Reagan signed the bill into law.

“It was a hell of a lot easier doing it in the 1980s,” said Panetta, who later became CIA director and defense secretary under President Barack Obama. “It was tough then, but at least everybody was willing to sit down and try to get the job done. There wasn’t the animosity and the political partisanship that you see today.”

“If anybody can do it, Chuck can do it,” he said of Schumer. “I think he feels that he owes it to all of those who had high hopes for the 1980s law to try to get something done now.”

The Immigration Reform and Control Act “was supposed to make illegal immigration disappear forever,” Schumer later wrote in his book, “Positively American: Winning Back the Middle-Class Majority One Family at a Time.” But enforcement provisions were weak, and Schumer said at the time that the law was a “riverboat gamble”; he was unsure they had fixed anything.

Illegal immigration has since soared to 11 million people, including more than 1 million in the New York metropolitan area, the highest of any metro area in the nation, according to Pew Research Center.

In 2009, Schumer acknowledged Republicans’ frustration with the failure to rein in illegal immigration, saying in a speech that “illegal immigration is wrong” and enforcement is necessary. There were record-high deportations during the Obama era and no deal on citizenship.

Schumer tried again in 2013 in the “Gang of Eight,” a bipartisan group of senators who negotiated passage of a bill that would have doubled the Border Patrol on the U.S.-Mexico border; built 700 miles of wall there; mandated use of the government’s E-Verify system, which checks if workers are here legally; and created a tough path to citizenship. But the GOP-led House wouldn’t consider the bill.

President Biden encouraged the House and Senate to pass a citizenship bill he sent to Congress this year, and Republican and Democratic senators met multiple times, but the talks went nowhere.

Schumer said that the GOP has been overtaken by “viciously anti-immigrant” sentiment inflamed under the Trump administration, and that he hoped that would change in the 2022 midterm elections. But he said he would not wait for that.

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Republicans have called the proposed reconciliation package reckless and say it would worsen the influx at the U.S.-Mexico border, where apprehensions are at 21-year highs, surpassing 1.3 million this year.

Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) called the immigration provision a “backdoor amnesty,” and Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) said the broader budget proposal would hurt the economy. Both were members of the 2013 Gang of Eight.

“The Democratic majority has set in motion a blueprint that will incentivize further illegal immigration, increase rampant inflation, and dramatically grow the size of government,” Graham said in a tweet.

Polls show that a majority of Americans back a path to legal residency for immigrants, though that support dipped this year as border apprehensions rose.

Immigrants say they have earned a path to citizenship: Millions are raising U.S.-born children and work in often-dangerous and low-paid jobs.

“I think we deserve it,” said the Brooklyn painter, who is eager to visit home in Guatemala. “I’ve been here for 20 years.”

“We pay taxes,” said Pedro, the 54-year-old handyman from Mexico, who did not use his last name for fear of being deported. He said he sent one daughter to New York University and another to Stony Brook University. If he gained citizenship, he said, he would invest even more.

“We contribute a lot to the economy,” he said.

Undocumented immigrants generally are ineligible for federal aid, and they live in fear of deportations or hate crimes. Many also say they cannot travel freely because increased security in the United States and criminal cartels in Mexico have made it more difficult to cross the border.

Oscar Lopez, 34, the air-conditioner installer, said he hadn’t returned to Mexico since he left 17 years ago. He needs the $21-an-hour job that pays his family’s expenses in both countries.

His family offered to let him listen by phone to his mother’s funeral six years ago, but he declined.

“I don’t want to think that she’s not here,” he said. “All I have left is my father. I want to see him again.”

“Ese sueño Americano, the American Dream,” journalist Gerson Borrero of HITN, a Spanish-language network, asked Schumer in an interview broadcast in June. “Do you believe that it still exists for us?”

Schumer — who says his middle name, Ellis, is for Ellis Island, the New York immigration station that processed the arrival of more than 12 million immigrants from 1892 to 1954 — said the government had to make it so.

New York has attempted to integrate undocumented immigrants, providing them legal aid, issuing them city identification cards and state driver’s licenses, and creating a $2.1 billion state fund for “excluded” workers ineligible for federal pandemic aid.

If immigrants here illegally cannot become U.S. citizens, officials reasoned, they can at least be New Yorkers.

But immigrants, who say they risked their lives to clean, cook and make deliveries in the pandemic, argue that local recognition is not enough.

In an apartment beside a raised subway platform in Queens, where the M train rumbles by every few minutes, Maria Mejia, 40, launched a takeout business cooking Mexican dishes she delivers on foot to other workers. She and her husband, Mauricio, 42, lost their jobs during the pandemic. She previously worked as a house cleaner, but her clients fled to their country homes.

The couple had no financial aid, and two U.S. citizen children.

“We went to bed and the city woke up paralyzed,” said Maria Mejia, who dreams of becoming a U.S. citizen and opening her own buffet-style restaurant. “But the city kept going. And who kept it going? We did. The undocumented.”

Her husband returned to work at a mom-and-pop supermarket last year, but like many undocumented immigrants, he has no health insurance, no overtime pay and no vacation time. He is paid $5 an hour, six days a week. The official minimum wage in New York is $15 an hour.

Immigrants say they are hopeful that Schumer is acting on their behalf, but they have also been pushing him in that direction. He is up for reelection next year.

Make the Road New York, a group that counts Mejia as a member, shut down the Manhattan Bridge in July to demand citizenship, papered Schumer’s neighborhood with fliers in May, and invited him to a town hall meeting with hundreds of immigrants.

“One way or another, something has to be done,” said Johana Larios, 27, a mother of two who has lived on Staten Island since she was a toddler and is trying to get a work permit through an Obama-era program that is held up in federal court. She is a plaintiff in a federal lawsuit seeking to restore the program, and she urged Schumer in the online town hall meeting in April to lead passage of a path to citizenship.

The National TPS Alliance set up a tent in a Queens park last month to call on Schumer to insist on legal residency for undocumented immigrants.

“Do you know how much power Schumer has?” Jose Palma, 44, said through a megaphone. He is a TPS holder from El Salvador who drove to New York from Massachusetts for the event. “It’s now or never.”

As they wait, the immigration system grinds on.

On the 12th floor of a federal building in Manhattan, Rayon Chance, a 50-year-old chef from Jamaica who lives in Brooklyn, appeared in immigration court last month facing possible deportation for allegedly entering the United States illegally in 2000. He worries he will one day be separated from his 11-year-old son and 17-year-old daughter, both U.S. citizens.

“You don’t know what’s going to happen,” he said.

On the ground below, immigrants who had just attended a citizenship ceremony waved U.S. flags and snapped photographs in celebration.

“This is the best day of my life,” said Farzana Alam, a 33-year-old information technology worker from Bangladesh.

Scott Clement contributed to this report.