Nearly two-dozen senators from both parties want to offer legislation next week that would protect almost 700,000 undocumented immigrants from deportation, but they're stuck on whether their measure should protect the parents of these immigrants from deportation too.
Most Democrats want to preserve the so-called “chain migration” system that lets newly documented immigrants line family members up to attain legal status. Many conservative lawmakers counter this system has to end or at least be substantially scaled back.
President Donald Trump has said DACA, an Obama-era executive action, will end March 5, so Congress is about to get serious codifying the program into law. But getting consensus is difficult, maybe even impossible.
Some Republicans say colleagues should be prepared to accept a short-term extension of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program if members can’t come up with a deal. Democrats want only a permanent fix.
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Fierce disagreements remain over how much to spend on Trump’s border wall, and whether to eliminate the diversity lottery program that incentivizes visas for individuals from countries with lower immigration rates.
All these flashpoints are being vigorously debated among members of the self-described, self-selected “common-sense coalition” that’s been meeting in Maine Republican Susan Collins’ Capitol Hill office for the past three weeks as they prepare in preparation for a free-for-all immigration debate on the Senate floor in the days ahead.
Lawmakers have been meeting almost daily, lured by Girl Scout cookies and the optics of appearing “bipartisan” and collegial on a very complicated and politically divisive issue. They’ve even delighted over the use of a “talking stick” to curb interruptions during heated debates.
Leaving one such meeting Thursday afternoon, senators routinely cited "progress."
But so far, no amount of sweets or gimmicks have helped lawmakers overcome major divides.
The working group was formed during the government shutdown last month with a hope it could reach a deal by Thursday, in time to satisfy Democrats ahead of the next deadline to avert a government shutdown Friday morning.
The coalition’s original membership was made up almost entirely of self-described moderates, especially heavy with Democrats from red states who are vulnerable in the 2018 midterms — Missouri’s Claire McCaskill and Florida’s Bill Nelson, for instance. But the group has since opened its doors to anyone who wants to get involved, which perhaps has made reaching consensus thornier.
In addition to Sens. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., and Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., veterans of crafting immigration policy who are pushing for a more expansive pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants, Sens. James Lankford, R-Okla., and Thom Tillis, R-N.C., who have called for a more restrictive DACA fix, are also now involved.
Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., who helped write the immigration bill that passed the Senate in 2013 but stalled in the House, has more recently inserted himself into these negotiations. Unlike many of his colleagues in the group who have never waded too deeply into the immigration debate in the past, Rubio is trying to temper expectations and prepare for compromise.
Rubio in particular is advising members to avoid the issue of “chain migration,” also called “family-based migration,” when it comes to the parents of DACA recipients.
“We are likelier to pass a bill that is silent on the parents,” Rubio said Thursday. “That doesn’t mean it’s not a sympathetic population, but I would say there are similarly sympathetic populations that are not being addressed no matter what we do.”
Graham, who helped organize the immigration working group, agreed that a key to the group’s success could be whether lawmakers agree to support a plan that just deals with a pathway to citizenship and enhanced border security.
He said that Trump’s commitment to offering citizenship to all 1.8 million undocumented immigrants originally brought to the country illegally by their parents — not just the 700,000 who are currently benefiting from DACA — was “a big move.”
But he conceded that Trump’s comments on immigrants from “shithole countries” in Africa and parts of the Caribbean, and White House Chief of Staff John Kelly’s remarks that some undocumented immigrants were “too lazy to get off their asses” and apply for DACA, may be making it harder for Democrats to compromise.
“Democrats are in a bit of a box because they’ve gotta say ‘no’ to a pathway to citizenship to 1.8 million because they’re upset about chain migration and the diversity lottery,” Graham told reporters Thursday.
Cornyn, who supports passing a proposal that broadly matches the president's framework, suggested reducing “family-based migration” to just spouses and minor children, with other family members qualifying for employment-based or skills based visas instead.
Short of a compromise, the fallback position would be to delay DACA’s imminent end. On Thursday, Flake was also preparing for such a scenario, announcing he was working on legislation that would extend DACA for three years plus bolster border security.
Both Graham and Senate Minority Whip Dick Durbin, D-Ill., at one point supported a three-year DACA extension. But that was in January 2017, before lawmakers caught a glimpse of the possibility a comprehensive immigration bill could actually become law.
Asked whether Democrats would support such a measure now, Durbin shook his head.
“You’re going to hear as many variations as the fertile minds of my colleagues can produce,” said Durbin, “but I will just tell you my goal is still a pathway to citizenship for the Dreamers, and will keep working towards that goal.”
Andrea Drusch of the McClatchy Washington Bureau contributed to this report.