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Immigration advocates cautiously optimistic about Senate immigration deal

Immigration advocates are warily eyeing an immigration deal that’s reportedly in the works in the Senate, hopeful that the bipartisan talks could break an enduring logjam.

The deal’s details were first reported by Washington Post opinion columnist Greg Sargent, who wrote that Sens. Thom Tillis (R-N.C.) and Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.) reached an agreement to grant a path to citizenship to about 2 million Dreamers, while speeding up elements of the asylum process and spending more money on border security.

Immigration advocates have been hankering for news of any sort of deal to protect Dreamers — undocumented immigrants who arrived in the country as minors — since the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program unlawful in October.

“The news of a Senate bipartisan legislative framework on immigration is a welcome first step that moves us closer to a long-awaited breakthrough this year. A permanent path to legal status and eventual citizenship for Dreamers would deliver a popular and economically beneficial solution for the nation and we are encouraged that Senators are talking about proposals that point in this direction,” said Vanessa Cárdenas, executive director of America’s Voice, a progressive immigration advocacy group.

But the supposed Tillis-Sinema deal, like all immigration deals, could face multiple snags.

While it should be relatively painless politically for a Republican like Tillis to move a deal favoring a sympathetic group like Dreamers, restrictionist hard-liners in the party quickly attacked Tillis over news of the deal.

“One would think that the utter disaster wrought by the Biden administration’s handling of the border, and our immigration system overall, would put an end to Republicans like Senator Tillis viewing an amnesty deal as the only path forward,” said R.J. Hauman, head of government relations and communications at the Federation for American Immigration Reform.

“It wouldn’t matter if he got $250 billion in funding or a 10-year Title 42 extension — unless Congress changes asylum and detention policies without amnesty involved, the crisis will continue,” added Hauman.

While most polls show a majority of GOP voters take a much softer line on groups like Dreamers, the party’s base will likely expect hard concessions in return.

As reported, the deal’s expansions of the asylum process include speeding up removals of migrants who don’t qualify for the asylum program.

If that expansion translates to mass deportations from the interior, the deal risks losing Democratic support, particularly as other groups of immigrants, like Temporary Protected Status (TPS) holders, are not covered.

“All legislation is a compromise, and while we have not seen the full outlines let alone legislative text, this is the case here. As an organization that believes all undocumented immigrants— TPS holders, farmworkers, parents, essential workers and more—deserve a pathway to citizenship, we want to note that this framework currently does not provide needed relief to many,” said Todd Schulte, president of Fwd.us.

“There are other parts of this reported framework that are concerning. It is important that while this process moves forward, any legislation maintains the right to apply for asylum on US soil and that all asylum seekers maintain access to due process,” added Schulte.

Still, the promise of a bipartisan deal in the Senate caught the attention of many in Washington.

And many immigrant advocates are willing to support a deal they consider fair, regardless of who moves it along or how.

“I’m interested in bringing relief to Dreamers. Why would I care about the vehicle if it’s a good deal?” said Rep. Lou Correa (D-Calif.), who pushed Democrats to include immigration provisions in President Biden’s massive Build Back Better framework, which was canned after opposition from centrist Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin (W.Va).

The involvement of another centrist who often bucks party lines, Sinema, could turn some Democrats off, particularly if the deal forces especially onerous concessions.

While Sinema is less likely to be fazed by border wall construction or funding of interior deportations, for many Democrats in the House and Senate, those could be red lines.

Still, Sinema’s history as a Senate centrist could help Tillis whip the 10 Republicans needed to pass a bill.

“Inaction has become the norm by Congress on immigration and it’s time for the status quo to change,” said Daniel Garza, president of the Libre Initiative, and Jorge Lima, VP of policy at Americans for Prosperity (AFP) in a joint statement.

“We applaud Senators Tillis and Sinema for taking the first step to address voters’ overwhelming concern for border security and Dreamers. While it’s predictable that some members would rather keep the status quo or wait for another time to address these crises, we know the American people are clear on when they want these issues addressed – now,” they added.

Libre and AFP are part of conservative mega donor Charles Koch’s political network, and more often support Republican candidates while promoting immigration reform that includes a path to citizenship for groups like Dreamers.

But immigration advocates on either side of the aisle are hard pressed to move during the lame duck session, as the incoming House GOP majority is unlikely to reach any sort of immigration deal that doesn’t cross Democratic red lines.

“Having run hard on border security demagoguery and embracing white nationalist conspiracy theories to scare voters about immigrants and immigration, House Republicans are not likely to allow any measures to improve immigration matters to reach a vote, prefering to have the political issue for the next elections rather than solutions. This year and the remaining weeks in this Congress present the best opportunity to enact legislation,” said Cárdenas.

Aside from the Tillis-Sinema deal, Sens. Mike Crapo (R-Idaho) and Michael Bennet (D-Colo.) are working on a Senate version of House-passed bill to grant a path to citizenship to potentially millions of farmworkers.

The last-minute scramble is familiar to immigration advocates who have often seen grand plans and agreements come crashing down.

“Given the history of this issue it’s hard to be optimistic, but hope springs eternal,” said Correa.

Tags Biden Greg Sargent Kyrsten Sinema Thom Tillis Todd Schulte
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