Border fights loom over immigration talks

When a small group of senators met recently to kick-start the latest iteration of immigration negotiations, Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas), a member of the group, laid out his starting line: the border. 

“I … said we can’t do anything until we deal with the border crisis. And so that’s, until we kind of get over that obstacle, I think it’s hard to get public support for doing these other things where there is a lot of common ground,” Cornyn told The Hill in recounting his message. 

What the policy should be for processing migrants arriving at the southern border has been a long-running sticking point in any attempts on Capitol Hill to strike a deal on immigration, a perennial legislative white whale. 

But the latest round of negotiations is dovetailing with a larger political fight over the Biden administration’s decision to rescind Title 42 — a Trump-era pandemic public health policy that allows for the rapid expulsion of migrants at the border and blocks them from seeking asylum — throwing an early, extra tripwire into an already uphill legislative attempt. 

Sen. Thom Tillis (R-N.C.), another member of the group, agreed with Cornyn, saying that they view the border as “foundational” to negotiations. 

“I don’t think there’s any way that we could get consensus if we’re not addressing the border crossing issue and the border security,” Tillis told The Hill. 

The Senate’s negotiations are still relatively nascent. The group met for a second time late last week and are planning to meet again this week, with Sen. Alex Padilla (D-Calif.) describing the status as “still no deal but good enough to keep talking.”

Democrats are aware that long-standing divisions over border policy could jam up their talks as they are just getting started. 

“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,” Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) previously told The Hill. 

As Republicans push for the border to be central to the Senate negotiations, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has been detailing its plan for a post-Title 42 world. But Republicans have been deeply critical of Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas, and there’s bipartisan support to prevent the administration from lifting Title 42. 

There’s also plenty of skepticism that the group will get anywhere after several other attempts have unraveled over the past decade. 

“That seems to be all we do is meet,” Cornyn said, adding, “I’m happy to try.”

A sweeping bill passed the Senate in 2013 that included a pathway to citizenship, but it hit a wall in the then-GOP controlled House. In 2018, the Senate rejected four separate immigration proposals, including a bipartisan effort that sparked pushback from the White House and the DHS under the former Trump administration.

In an acknowledgement of the difficulty of getting a bipartisan deal on immigration, where they would need at least 10 GOP votes in the Senate, Democrats had hoped to include a pathway to citizenship for millions of immigrants in a tax-and-spending bill they could pass along party lines. 

But they ran into roadblocks with the Senate parliamentarian, who advised that the proposals didn’t meet the rules for what could be included. And the larger spending bill has been frozen for months over Democratic divisions. 

Padilla and Sens. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), Ben Ray Luján (D-N.M.) and Catherine Cortez Masto (D-Nev.) met with President Biden last week to urge the administration to take executive action related to the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, Temporary Protected Status holders and “hardworking immigrant families.” 

“We are glad he was receptive to our ideas to issue executive actions that would provide temporary legal status to these communities,” they said in a joint statement. 

But Republicans warn that if Biden leapfrogs Congress, it will effectively put the kibosh on any chances of an immigration deal. 

“I think if they do executive action when we’re trying to negotiate in good faith, it will pretty much end any opportunity for us to do something here,” Tillis said.

Tags Alex Padilla Joe Biden John Cornyn Thom Tillis

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