Immigrant rights advocates said Monday that Democrats must change, ignore or overturn the Senate parliamentarian’s ruling that the law precludes adding an amnesty for millions of illegal immigrants to the $3.5 trillion budget bill.
Some activists said they’re willing to give party leaders more time to change Parliamentarian Elizabeth MacDonough’s mind with an alternative legalization plan.
But a growing chorus of voices said Democrats must ponder tougher measures, including voting to overturn her decision, upend 30 years of Senate practice and bully the amnesty through Congress.
“It’s time to stop honoring archaic procedures and honor the promises we made to immigrant families,” Rep. Ayanna Pressley, Massachusetts Democrat, said on Twitter.
The National Immigration Law Center explicitly said Democrats must vote to “overrule” the decision and warned of “implications” if the party falls short.
The tough talk underscored the stakes for Democrats on immigration after years of promises for action that ended without a bill clearing Congress.
The new hiccup came with Ms. MacDonough, who ruled that attempting to grant legal status to as many as 8 million illegal immigrants was a massive policy change and thus can’t be tucked into budget “reconciliation,” a process that allows the majority to avoid a filibuster and pass fiscal legislation by majority vote.
Democratic leaders say they have alternative proposals that they think might fit into the rules.
Some activists said they’ll give Democrats time to make that case.
“The parliamentarian is a civil servant, and we want to be respectful of the role that she has played. She serves at the pleasure of Democratic leadership. Her response was political, but we have more political power,” said Gustavo Torres, executive director of CASA, a prominent immigrant-rights group in the Washington area.
But activists said there can be no doubt about where things end up: Democrats must find a way to pass broad legalization.
“President Biden and Democrats in Congress promised to protect immigrant youth and their families,” United We Dream Action said in an email to supporters. “We CANNOT accept broken promises.”
One option Democrats are pondering is updating a portion of existing law that gives illegal immigrants in the country before 1972 the chance to apply for a green card, the key step on the path to citizenship. Backers say a more recent date could offer citizenship rights to millions of people.
Advocates said other possibilities are being discussed as well.
Should Democrats fail to come up with a plan that wins Ms. MacDonough’s approval, activists — and more than a few members of Congress — say the next step is to sideline her.
“This is not a ruling. This is nothing binding. It’s opinion,” Ms. Pressley told reporters. “I don’t think that a Senate parliamentarian, who has proven themselves on multiple occasions to be an obstructionist toward getting what we need to get done on behalf of the people and to advance the president’s agenda, should be standing in the way.”
Senate Democrats could vote to overturn her decision, but Senate Majority Whip Richard J. Durbin of Illinois, chairman of the Judiciary Committee and Democrats’ chief negotiator on immigration, said that’s not likely.
“I think the votes needed on the floor are not there,” he said.
Democrats could try to fire Ms. MacDonough and find a more pliable parliamentarian. Republicans took that approach after a ruling they didn’t like when they controlled the chamber two decades ago.
Some Democrats renewed their call to defang the filibuster, which would eliminate the need to use the convoluted budget reconciliation process to pass bills by majority vote.
Republicans said Ms. MacDonough got it right in her decision.
Sen. Charles E. Grassley of Iowa, the top Republican on the Judiciary Committee, said immigration is such a big issue that it shouldn’t be tucked inside a budget debate as if it were just another spending proposal.
“At its core, the issue of immigration is about the policies we put in place to give people from around the world one of the most meaningful and precious gifts we can give: the right to legally establish your life here and, in many cases, pursue American citizenship,” he said.
He said Democrats could make the situation much easier by curtailing their appetite for amnesty and limiting the pool of people they want to legalize.
A deal to grant a path to citizenship to illegal immigrant “Dreamers,” those who came to the U.S. as children and who are considered the most sympathetic cases, could be had easily if it is coupled with border security, Republican lawmakers said.
Activists said that’s not enough.
They see a chance to grant citizenship rights to Dreamers, those here under the Temporary Protected Status program and those deemed “essential” workers — a pool of people that could range from 6 million to 8 million.
The version of the proposal that cleared the House Judiciary Committee last week did not include border security or enforcement measures.
• Haris Alic contributed to this article.