Senators to restart bipartisan immigration reform talks

A bipartisan group of senators want to start formally convening meetings to try to restart immigration reform efforts after the Senate returns to Washington, D.C., from an April break. 

A bipartisan immigration deal appears to be congressional Democrats’ best hope of making good on their pledge to reform immigration, after Democrats’ attempts to go it alone as part of a sweeping bill unraveled last year. They would face a significant uphill climb getting such a reform deal heading into the November election, where Republicans plan to make the issue a key line of attack. 

But Sens. Thom Tillis (R-N.C.) and Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) told The Hill that they want to bring together a group of senators interested in trying to revive immigration discussions — a perennial policy white whale for Congress — after a two-week recess. 

“Yes … we want to sit at a table and ask members who have immigration, bipartisan immigration bills, to come and propose those bills to us and see if we can build a 60-vote plus margin for a group of bills. It may not be possible, but I think it is,” Durbin said when asked about holding meetings after the recess. 

Tillis, asked by The Hill about the talks, added that after the recess he wanted to “start some working groups leading up to whenever we can have a [committee] mark up.” 

Tillis and Durbin have had nascent discussions amongst themselves, though much of Durbin’s focus in recent weeks has been on getting Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson confirmed to the Supreme Court. Durbin has also previously said that his staff was working with the staff of Sen. John Cornyn’s (R-Texas) — though the Texas Republican said Thursday that he hadn’t heard about that. 

Durbin confirmed to The Hill that meetings after the break would be the first time they’ve formally met and sat down with their colleagues to try to start sketching out a possible path forward. In addition to Tillis, Durbin noted that he had mentioned trying to revive immigration talks “with several people” in the Senate. 

The group’s effort is the latest in recent years to try to figure out how to get a deal on immigration reform that could pass both the House and Senate — efforts to do so have previously failed. 

The Senate passed a bill in 2013 in a 68-32 vote that would have paired border security, overhauling immigration laws and creating a pathway to citizenship for millions of undocumented immigrants if they can meet certain benchmarks. 

Republicans moved further to the right on immigration under then-President Trump, who took a hard line against immigration, sparked a weeks-long partial government shutdown as part of a fight to get more funding for the U.S.-Mexico border wall, placed significant limits on the ability to seek asylum and sparked backlash from Democrats, advocates and human rights groups over its detention centers for undocumented immigrants. 

Democrats also faced multiple setbacks last year after the parliamentarian warned that three immigration proposals didn’t comply with the budget rules for inclusion in a sweeping climate and social spending package that Democrats could have passed without GOP support. That package, known as Build Back Better, ultimately unraveled late last year. 

Instead of trying to immediately start crafting a proposal from scratch, Durbin suggested that the group would focus on looking at bills that have already been introduced, noting that “there are a lot of bills out there.” 

Tillis, meanwhile, is urging the group to “think big and then from that try to come up with bipartisan consensus.” 

“The only way that we’re going to get real progress is have a four pillar discussion — so immigration reform, DACA, border security and then I think asylum reform is pretty important particularly with that’s going on with Title 42,” Tillis said. 

The Biden administration’s decision to end Title 42 a Trump-era policy that allows for the rapid expulsion of migrants at the border and blocks them from seeking asylum — comes after Biden faced pressure for months from immigration advocates and Democratic allies to end a policy that they viewed as illegal and cruel to those fleeing persecution and danger. The order from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) plans to lift Title 42 on May 23.

But the decision also sparked bipartisan backlash on Capitol Hill, potentially emerging as an early sticking point in any immigration reform discussions. A bipartisan group of senators, led by Sen. James Lankford (R-Okla.), introduced a bill on Thursday to effectively tie Title 42 to the public health emergency. 

The fight over Title 42 has also snagged a $10 billion deal on COVID-19 aid, with the Senate leaving town for a two-week break without a path forward on the legislation.

Durbin acknowledged that the situation at the border could bog down any bipartisan Senate discussions, which has happened with previous bipartisan attempts at finding a deal. 

“It’s complicated by what’s going on at the southern border; if that gets progressively worse, it will soak up all the energy on immigration,” Durbin said. 

Tags Dick Durbin Dick Durbin John Cornyn thom tillis Thom Tillis

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