WASHINGTON, D.C. — Since the first telephones were installed in the Capitol in 1880, call campaigns have been part of the playbook for advocates looking to get through to Congress.
As new telephones were installed throughout the Capitol complex over the decades, the relationship between Congress and the new technology was not always smooth. After new dial telephones were installed in 1930, Sen. Carter Glass (D-VA), a former newspaperman, introduced a motion to have them removed as “a nuisance.”
The phones prevailed, of course. Today, every Senate office has telephones—and some never stop ringing thanks to the group chat efforts of a green card backlog advocacy movement seeking answers from Sens. Dick Durbin (D-IL) and Alex Padilla (D-CA).
“We know Padilla’s office opens at 9 a.m., so that’s when we get started,” said Kenny, a green card backlog advocate from Princeton, New Jersey visiting Washington to push for immigrant relief provisions. “Durbin’s office opens at 10 a.m., so that’s when we start calling them. Then we keep up the pressure with a caller for every minute of the day.”
Kenny estimates that 63,000 calls have originated in the group chat over the last three months, which has around 10,000 Telegram users who often identify themselves by their name or initials plus their Congressional district.
Detailed instructions and call scripts are shared in the chat, which focuses this week on two obscure immigrant relief provisions in the Build Back Better bill sent to the Senate from the House. Sections 60002 and 60003 deal with green card recapture and early adjustment of status, both of which would greatly benefit the green card backlog community.
Daily tallies of calls to targeted senators are kept via the honor system in the Telegram chat, with users posting updated call counts alongside the initials of the senator’s office on Capitol Hill that has been called throughout the day.
Numbers are crunched throughout the day.
“60 calls in 1-2pm (DD, AP, CS)”
“94 calls in 2-3pm (DD,AP, CS)”
“CS” is Majority Leader Charles Schumer, the lawmaker tasked, along with Majority whip Durbin, with passing the Build Back Better Act in the Senate, ideally before year’s end.
On Monday, Kenny said his chat registered 850 calls, but that there are larger Telegram chats doing calls to advocate for the green card backlog, too, which is estimated to include 1.2 million immigrants, mostly from India, China, Mexico, and Colombia.
For some in the green card backlog, calling Senate staffers is a family affair. “I have kids in middle and high school,” said Pankaj Jain in Oregon’s 1st Congressional District, represented by Democratic Rep. Suzanne Bonamici. “They make their calls while going to the school.”
“It’s a lot,” said a Durbin staffer of the green card backlog’s call campaign, speaking on the condition of anonymity. “They are very persistent.”
Staffers for Sens. Padilla and Bob Menendez (D-NJ) confirm they too receive massive call volumes at their respective offices from green card backlog advocates, but no lawmaker in Congress is has been scrutinized as hard by the green card backlog, or as long, as Durbin.
“Durbin’s staff have (refused) to listen to our story, saying they need to keep the lines free for constituents,” said Sushama Desai, a California-based backlog advocate. “Padilla’s staff has been nice so far.”
Tejashri Joshi, another backlog advocate on Telegram, echoed Desai. “Alex Padilla’s staff definitely empathize with our situation,” said Joshi. “Sen. Durbin’s go by the script that they have no knowledge of what language has been sent to the parliamentarian and only need my zip code to pass our message along.”
“For Sen. Durbin, we are people of color, but for his staff we are just a zip code,” said Jain. “Although his staff was polite to the kids.”
“Obviously we have to prioritize constituents,” explained the Durbin staffer when asked why some callers are sometimes asked for a zip code. But some green card backlog advocates aren’t buying it.
“As a test, I called them about Bitcoin and they were patient and willing to listen to me for as long as I wanted,” said Prem Singh, 36, a tech worker in Boston who came to the U.S. for grad school in 2007 then found a job in the tech industry two years later that allowed him to stay in the country. “Menendez’s legislative aide listened to me for 15 minutes whereas Durbin’s phone staff won’t listen for more than a minute. They never connected me to legislative staff.”
Durbin not only is the senior senator from Illinois but also has long been the Democratic whip in the Senate and chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee—a jurisdictional trio that can make prioritizing policy concerns tricky for staffers.
“Constituents come first because it’s the people of Illinois who elect him to serve them in the Senate,” said the Durbin staffer, who admits that it’s not uncommon for the Senator’s Capitol Hill staff to wear several hats in the policymaking process.
Debu Gandhi, for example, serves as a counsel for Sen. Durbin and is chief counsel for immigration on the judiciary committee Durbin chairs.
Fun Fact: @SenatorDurbin's lead negotiator on immigration proposals to parliamentarian is Mahatma Gandhi's great grandson, per several sources in the green card reform movement.
— Pablo Manríquez (@PabloReports) November 4, 2021
Gandhi is part of the team of Durbin staffers that has led the proposals so far to Senate Parliamentarian Elizabeth MacDonough.
Some of the immigrant relief provisions included in the House bill have been proposed to MacDonough, but not all. The green card backlog provisions (sections 60002 and 60003) in the House bill that drew Kenny to D.C. on Monday, for example, have not been formally proposed yet to MacDonough, according to multiple Senate sources involved in the process.
Only section 60001, which would create temporary work authorization and protection from deportation for undocumented immigrants has gone through the formal “Byrd Bath” process whereby both parties present formal arguments to the Parliamentarian for or against a measure.
Why other remaining immigrant relief sections have not been proposed remains unclear, leaving many in the green card backlog community to accuse Durbin and other Senate Democrats of operating in bad faith against immigrants from India.
Others find hope in some of the language in MacDonough’s rejection of Democrats’ first proposal for immigrant relief in the bill, which would have created a citizenship pathway for roughly 9 million immigrants. “The provisions cited are distinguishable as they applied to persons who were already admissible and not barred under law from applying for status,” wrote MacDonough, referring to a 2005 precedent cited by Democratic aides in their argument for the proposal, now known as “Plan A.”
However, the precedent was neither challenged nor did it survive through to the final bill text, wrote MacDonough, “so the value is limited” given that every relief provision in the Build Back Better Act is almost certain to be challenged by Republicans.
Senate Judiciary ranking member @ChuckGrassley on whether GOP will issue a Byrd challenge to green card recapture:
"I don't know for sure. But I assume so. I can assume that there's going to be every opportunity we can take to raise questions that aren't strictly money or taxes"
— Lindsey McPherson (@lindsemcpherson) December 13, 2021
Meanwhile, the last guidance from MacDonough on immigrant relief was 76 days ago, on September 29, despite that the formal, bipartisan Byrd Bath process on the latest relief proposal (“Plan C”), which excluded the green card backlog relief sections, was completed earlier this month, according to aides involved in the process.
Asked by Latino Rebels on Tuesday if the remaining immigrant relief provisions have been sent to MacDonough (“the ones outside of Plan C”), Durbin said, “I read that they have but I haven’t seen.”
Asked by reporters for an update on the pending guidance from the Parliamentarian on the overall bill, Durbin said he is “trying to be sensitive to the fact that she’s going through a tough situation” due to “extenuating circumstances.”
Durbin did not elaborate on the circumstances, but MacDonough reportedly underwent treatment earlier this year for advanced breast cancer.
“As soon as it gets anything near the green light from the Parliamentarian,” added Durbin on Tuesday, “I think we should move quickly.”
Pablo Manríquez is the Washington correspondent for Latino Rebels. Twitter: @PabloReports