Arizona's Democratic Senators Mark Kelly and Kyrsten Sinema both voted last week to bar undocumented immigrants from receiving stimulus checks, drawing the ire of progressives and highlighting the political tightrope the senators must stay balanced on.
The February 4 vote came after Republican Senator Todd Young of Indiana introduced an amendment to the budget resolution, which is needed to pass President Joe Biden's $1.9 trillion pandemic relief package, that would block undocumented immigrants from getting direct financial assistance. Sinema and Kelly were joined by six other Democrats in siding with Republicans to back the amendment; it passed 58-42.
A statement from Sinema's office defended her vote as one that upheld "current law," and noted that the amendment doesn't explicitly prevent people who are eligible to receive direct payments from getting them, even if members of their household are undocumented.
“Arizona continues to struggle with a public health and economic crisis. Kyrsten is working to ensure a next relief bill is laser-focused on addressing those immediate needs to save lives and fuel a full economic recovery," the statement reads. "On this amendment, Kyrsten voted to uphold what is currently law, which does not allow individuals without work-eligible social security numbers to receive stimulus payments. Kyrsten has voted to support, and this amendment does not deny, aid to mixed status families.”
Senator Kelly, who took office on December 2 after beating Republican Martha McSally in the general election, responded to a message after publication of this article on Tuesday:
"These amendments were an attempt to obstruct and distract from getting COVID-19 relief to Arizonans," read a statement provided by Marisol Samayoa, a Kelly spokesperson. "In the last relief package, Senator Kelly voted to support direct COVID-19 relief for individuals in mixed status families, and that won't change with this relief bill. He is committed to long-term bipartisan solutions to fix our broken immigration system in a way that is true to our values and supports Arizona's economy."
Dick Durbin, a Democratic Senator from Illinois and the Senate Majority Whip, told Politico that the amendment could stop stimulus checks from going to the families of undocumented immigrants who otherwise would be eligible to receive them.
“Neither Biden nor any Democrat is proposing in this package to give any money to any undocumented person. The question is if you are the legal child, citizen of the United States, of an undocumented person, should you receive a check? I say yes,” Durbin said.
Karina Ruiz De Diaz, executive director of the Arizona Dream Act Coalition and a participant in the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, called the votes cast by Kelly and Sinema "morally wrong."
"It was shocking for me to see the vote because I have heard from both senators that they want to work on immigration reform," Ruiz De Diaz said. "It’s morally wrong to just disregard the needs of undocumented immigrants, as if our lives do not matter."
She added that undocumented immigrants still pay taxes. According to the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy, a non-partisan Washington, D.C.-based think tank, undocumented immigrants pay an estimated $11.6 billion per year in state and local taxes. (The report also notes the total would be more than $2 billion higher if undocumented immigrants were allowed to work legally.)
"We pay into the system yet we don’t get to get benefits from the system," Ruiz De Diaz said. "We do pay our share."
"My worry is that it could hurt the chances later on of undocumented immigrants to be part of the benefits in any package, which is going to have real consequences for real people," she added. "We have senior Latinos, among those Latinos — we know that the undocumented community is the one struggling the most. We don’t have a work permit that allows us to get another job easily. We have to work under the table."
The votes also highlights the tension playing out between Arizona's two senators — both of whom are key to Democrats' current majority in the U.S. Senate — and local Democratic activists who backed them during their campaigns. Sinema famously opposed getting rid of the filibuster, prompting criticism from progressives. Kelly, meanwhile, is up for reelection in 2022.
Paul Bentz, vice president of research and strategy at HighGround, a Phoenix-based political consulting firm, said that the votes of Kelly and Sinema on the amendment reflect a political calculus on their part that Arizona voters aren't running to the left on immigration issues.
"Independent and unaffiliated voters have shown a desire for immigration enforcement and immigration reform," he said. "While the progressive base of the Democratic party wants to do more for the undocumented [population], the swing voters that Kelly and Sinema have relied on significantly to win their elections may not feel the same way and they’re being mindful of their overall coalition of supporters."
"The challenge that both Kelly and Sinema face is they have to navigate what it means to be an Arizona Democrat," Bentz added. "Arizona is not a progressive-leaning state. We don’t elect Chuck Schumer or Nancy Pelosi-style Democrats. So they have to cut their own path of what it means to be an Arizona Democrat and they will run into these challenges on a regular basis."
(Update: This story was updated after publication with comments from Paul Bentz and Mark Kelly's office.)