Border surge scrambles Senate immigration debate
President Biden’s pledge to tackle immigration reform is running into a Senate buzz saw as upheaval at the border creates new gridlock in Washington.
Senators at the center of immigration discussions say they don’t see a viable way to pass comprehensive reform anytime soon and that two smaller bills slated for House passage this week — help for “Dreamers” and farm workers — will be stuck in limbo upon arrival.
Looming over the debate is the Biden administration’s handling of a surge of migrants at the southern border, where the detention of thousands of minors threatens to spark a humanitarian crisis after four years of Democrats criticizing former President Trump’s approach to immigration.
“I’m reaching out on the Republican side. Many of them have said they are focused on the southern border. And I think that has to be part of the conversation,” said Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), the No. 2 Senate Democrat and chair of the Judiciary Committee.
Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), his frequent negotiating partner on immigration, put it more bluntly: “There’s no pathway for anything right now.”
The setbacks in the Senate come as the House will vote Thursday to advance piecemeal immigration bills and as House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) doubled down on bringing up comprehensive immigration legislation that would provide a path to citizenship for approximately 11 million undocumented immigrants.
The larger package was facing an uphill climb in the Senate, where 60 votes are needed to pass most legislation, even before the recent border surge.
The last time the Senate passed a major immigration bill was in 2013, for legislation that would have established a 13-year path to citizenship and poured new money into border security. Of the Republicans who voted for the measure, only Sens. Susan Collins (Maine), Lisa Murkowski (Alaska), Marco Rubio (Fla.) and Graham remain in the chamber. Rubio has indicated that he could no longer vote for the 2013 bill.
“The world has changed dramatically. … Eight years is a long time, and a lot has changed. Our country’s changed, the world has changed, and there’s a reality that needs to be taken into account when drafting,” Rubio said.
Sen. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.) has introduced legislation in the Senate mirroring Biden’s immigration plan, which provides a pathway to citizenship for roughly 11 million people while trying to update border technology, eliminate visa backlogs and per-country visa caps and discourage migration from Central American nations.
But Graham called it a “non-starter.” And Durbin said he doesn’t see a bill providing a broad path to citizenship getting through the Senate.
“I don’t see a means of reaching that. I want it,” Durbin said.
Menendez, asked about Durbin’s comments, said he wasn’t going to “wave the white flag before we start.”
Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) also appeared to acknowledge the political reality on Capitol Hill, saying it was his “strongest desire” to pass comprehensive immigration reform while stopping short of committing to Biden’s proposal.
“I think the president’s bill is great. … So we’re going to try to do everything we can for as bold an immigration bill as we can get, plain and simple. We’ll see where our Republican colleagues are,” Schumer said.
The Biden administration has said it’s willing to break up the broader immigration package, but even smaller bills appear headed toward procedural roadblocks in the Senate.
The two House bills, which Republicans are whipping against, will be sent to the Senate Judiciary Committee. Asked about how to advance either a standalone DREAM Act bill or the separate agriculture workers measure, Durbin signaled he didn’t yet have enough GOP support.
“[I] have to sit down with my colleagues and just see if there’s any bipartisan consensus from moving that bill with those two as the starting points,” Durbin said. “We need Republican votes.”
Republicans have homed in this week on the surge at the border, saying it’s a clear sign that the Biden administration’s policies are already backfiring.
Graham said the border crisis made it “much harder” to make progress on helping Dreamers, undocumented immigrants brought to the U.S. illegally as children.
“I think it’s gonna be really hard to get a bipartisan bill put together on anything that has a legalization component until you stop the flow,” he said.
In a sign of how much the Trump years shifted the debate within the GOP on immigration, Republicans are drawing red lines on border security and sent a letter questioning whether the Biden administration violated federal law with its decision to discontinue construction of the controversial U.S.-Mexico border wall.
“God knows the Biden administration needs the help. I mean, we’ve got thousands of people pouring across the border every single day,” said Sen. John Kennedy (R-La.), one of the signers of the letter. “You know, this is not complicated, what’s happening at the border. People respond to incentives.”
House Republicans offered their own immigration proposal on Wednesday to provide border security funding, permanent legal status for Dreamers and a pathway to renewable legal status for other undocumented immigrants.
But it also requires implementation of the border security provisions before the rest of the bill would kick in while also overhauling the asylum system.
Democrats are warning that inserting politically tricky issues like asylum is almost certain to guarantee nothing gets passed. And they’re skeptical that Republicans aren’t using the border as a political cudgel with no intention of engaging in good-faith negotiations.
“My worry is that they just see immigration as a political wedge issue, but there still remains the same opportunity that there was seven years ago to get 70 votes for a comprehensive bill,” said Sen. Chis Murphy (D-Conn.).
Durbin envisioned a scenario where in six weeks the administration has gotten the situation at the border under control.
“Does that mean the Republicans will come forward for immigration reform?” Durbin asked. “I’m not sure.”
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