A group of Senate Democrats demanded Saturday that a new extension of tentative legal status for would-be undocumented immigrants be part of any year-end spending package, throwing a new wrinkle into an already touchy debate over avoiding a government shutdown.
Led by Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto of Nevada, the Democrats called for an 18-month extension of Temporary Protected Status for more than 400,000 migrants from six countries who currently are protected from deportation under the program.
The Trump administration has tried to end the status for those countries, saying conditions have improved enough in places like El Salvador and Haiti, since the natural disasters that had prompted the status, that the migrants should return home.
But Democrats say they should be given permanent status here and, in the meantime, should be granted an extension of their current protections.
In particular, Democrats said, more than 130,000 TPS holders work in food, transportation or other areas of the economy that are considered essential during the coronavirus pandemic.
“TPS recipients and their families should not have to worry that they will be forced to leave the country they call home in the middle of a global pandemic,” the senators wrote. The letter was signed by more than half of the Senate Democratic Caucus.
Their demand is likely to be met with resistance by Republicans, who are already bracing for fights with Democrats over border wall money and deportation operations funding for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
Before this latest demand, Republicans’ top negotiator, Sen. Richard Shelby of Alabama, had said he figured the GOP-led Senate and Democrat-led House were in agreement on about 90% of the spending items.
Whatever deal they reach will not only have to win approval in both chambers, but will have to get President Trump’s signature.
A new spending bill is due by Dec. 11. Without one, the government would careen into a shutdown.
Mr. Trump’s fight over wall money in 2018 already spurred the longest shutdown in U.S. history.
TPS is supposed to be a short-term status so people who were in the U.S. at the time their home countries were struck with natural disasters wouldn’t have to go back and complicate relief efforts. Once the countries recover, the status is supposed to end.
Those who hold TPS are granted work permits, allowing them to support themselves — and to compete for jobs.
The program became controversial as the Obama administration renewed status for hundreds of thousands of Central Americans who have been in the U.S. since the beginning of the century, after earthquakes and hurricanes devastated their home countries.
Democrats argue that the fact that the U.S. has allowed the migrants to live in the U.S. for so long means they have become embedded in society and thus earned their chance at citizenship.
But the Trump administration moved to end TPS for many of the countries on the list, arguing they had finally recovered and their citizens should return home.
A tsunami of lawsuits followed, and the cases are still being fought in courts, so none of the TPS halts has taken effect.
Mr. Trump’s infamous “s—-hole” comment about some foreign nations came when he was discussing TPS countries with senators in a private meeting. The comment has become an issue in those court cases.
Presumptive President-elect Joseph R. Biden is certain to try to renew TPS status for these countries when he takes office, and could grant new protections.
The senators on Saturday acknowledged the first TPS deadline is in March — after Mr. Biden would take office. That makes the timing of Democrats’ demands striking, given the already thorny nature of the spending debate.