Republican immigration proposal falls flat

A joint immigration proposal by two top Senate Republicans was met with jeers among immigration advocates on both sides of the aisle, but some observers see it as an escape valve if Senate rules don't allow Democrats to push through their version of immigration reform.

GOP Sens. John CornynJohn CornynBiden's bipartisan deal faces Senate gauntlet Senate votes to take up infrastructure deal Biden officials pledge to confront cybersecurity challenges head-on MORE (Texas) and Thom TillisThomas (Thom) Roland TillisBiden's bipartisan deal faces Senate gauntlet The Hill's 12:30 Report - Presented by Facebook - US gymnast wins all-around gold as Simone Biles cheers from the stands GOP senator credits Sinema for infrastructure deal MORE (N.C.) on Tuesday proposed legislation to offer a path to citizenship for “active participants” in the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program.

Dropped as Democrats weigh whether to use the budget reconciliation package to push their own plan, the Senate Republicans’ proposal angered the left for its narrow scope, and the right for its proposed “amnesty.”

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“There he goes again. Senator Cornyn has one play, consisting of four steps. This week he’s initiating step two of Cornyn Con. He’s not setting up a bipartisan breakthrough, he’s setting up a partisan blame game,” said Frank Sharry, executive director of America's Voice, a progressive immigration advocacy group.

“Cornyn and the Republicans don’t want to pass immigration reform this year, they want to run against immigration next year,” added Sharry. 

Immigration restrictionists discounted the proposal outright, saying it crosses the red line of offering “amnesty” to people who entered the United States illegally.

“This is a pointless, poorly-timed endeavor by Senators Cornyn and Tillis. The last immigration policy matter that should be on their mind, or any Republican senator’s mind, is amnesty. Yet another reminder that a politician having an 'R' beside their name doesn’t mean they will automatically act in a manner that is in harmony with the national interest on immigration,” said Matthew Tragesser, a spokesman for the Federation for American Immigration Reform.

The Republicans made their pitch this week in a letter to Senate Judiciary Chairman Sen. Dick DurbinDick DurbinCongress should butt out of Supreme Court's business Inmates grapple with uncertainty over Biden prison plan Democrats warn shrinking Biden's spending plan could backfire MORE (D-Ill.), a longtime proponent of immigration reform.

The offer, which would benefit fewer than 700,000 people, falls far short of what Democrats and some House Republicans are seeking in terms of legalization. It would exclude potential DACA recipients who were unable to access the program during the Trump administration — a number the Migration Policy Institute estimates is as high as 1.3 million additional people.

While progressives publicly are confident that Democrats will be able to push through much broader immigration benefits — potentially granting a path to citizenship to up to 11 million immigrants — the Senate parliamentarian has yet to be asked to rule on whether immigration benefits can be included in a reconciliation bill.

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The most expansive version of the Democratic proposal would grant a path to citizenship to DACA recipients, other so-called Dreamers — immigrants who arrived in the country illegally as minors — beneficiaries of the Temporary Protected Status program, immigrant farmworkers, essential workers and their close relatives.

In all, a broad immigration proposal in the reconciliation process could leave few, if any, immigrants living in the country illegally without a shot at legalization.

Still, some Democrats are unconvinced that full legalization is in their interest, and there is an internal debate as to what the parliamentarian will allow.

“I imagine a lot of Democrats are going to be very eager to hear what the parliamentarian has to say. Especially for moderate Democrats, if she decides immigration cannot be included, that may very well be a relief,” said Ali Noorani, executive director of the National Immigration Forum.

“For others on the more progressive side they may really want to see it included,” Noorani added.

At least one House Democrat, Rep. Jesús García (Ill.), has said he will not support a reconciliation package that does not include immigration provisions.

House Budget Committee Chairman John YarmuthJohn Allen YarmuthDemocrats look to flip script on GOP 'defund the police' attacks Democrats hit crunch time in Biden spending fight Republican immigration proposal falls flat MORE (D-Ky.) said in June that he doesn't believe the legalization of immigrants already in the country would have enough budgetary impact to pass the parliamentarian's muster.

Still, a progressive red line on immigration and reconciliation could mean that, with the Senate parliamentarian’s blessing, Democratic leaders in both chambers would be forced to include broad legalization provisions to pass a reconciliation measure in order to secure enough votes.

And the possibility of passing a broad legalization agenda is a new prospect in a Congress that hasn’t passed meaningful immigration legislation in three decades.

“The reality is every option should be on the table, including using reconciliation to try and move something you otherwise might not be able to,” said Jorge Loweree, policy director at the American Immigration Counsel. 

“The situation we’re in right now where Democrats are in control of both the White House and both chambers — it could be another decade before we’re back in this situation,” said Loweree.

Given the uncertainty surrounding reconciliation and full Democratic support for a broad immigration package, some doubt the reconciliation bill will include the pro-immigration group's wish list.

Alex Nowrasteh, director of immigration studies at the libertarian Cato Institute, said he’s not sure Democrats have the political capital to push for a reconciliation package or a bigger stand-alone package.

“All the steps that need to be taken, all the costs that will be incurred on each one of those steps, the political costs and the sort of media fallout, all going on while there's a surge of apprehensions — I think that there’s really just no chance that anyone's going to spend the political capital [that would] expose themselves to the attacks,” he said.

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But he also called the Cornyn approach a delay tactic.

“I do think there's a good argument for a piecemeal approach because then some portions of immigration reform can probably pass,” Nowrasteh said. 

“There's a great strategic argument for breaking things up ... but I only believe it when it comes from people who support immigration reform,” he added. 

The criticism generated pushback from Cornyn’s office.

“Only in Washington, D.C., would asking for a DACA bill to be passed be labeled a delay tactic to getting a DACA bill passed,” spokeswoman Natalie Yezbick told The Hill by email. 

And not all see the plan as a bad thing — especially if it's the opening offer in a negotiation.

“I think what they’re saying is, ‘This is our starting point,’ ” Noorani said of Cornyn’s proposal. “That's a good sign. You may not like it, but the fact that they’re putting a starting point on the table is a good thing.”

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Still, Cornyn's plan was criticized on its merits in that it would arbitrarily select a group of Dreamers to grant legalization, leaving others in the lurch, including other potential DACA recipients along with many other people without documentation.

“It's carving out a relatively small subset of the undocumented population and pitting them against everyone else, creating tension and conflict and the reality it's likely intended to derail any immigration reform, period,” said Loweree.

Updated July 12 at 11:56 a.m.