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No One Knows How the Senate’s Immigration Free-for-All Will End

4 minute read

With three weeks to go until protections for certain undocumented immigrants expire, Congress is preparing this week to launch into frenetic debate on immigration reform. What the result will look like, however, is anyone’s guess.

The issue at hand is the fate of Dreamers, the several million individuals who were brought to the U.S. illegally as children. Roughly 700,000 of them are protected under the Obama-era executive program known as Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, which President Donald Trump ended in September. It is slated to expire in the first week of March.

After stalling for months on producing a legislative replacement, the Republican-led Senate will open the floor on Monday evening for a uncommon open debate on the issue in which lawmakers will contribute amendments and proposals to an unrelated bill that offers a tabula rasa vehicle for an immigration solution. The debate will likely be freewheeling and open-ended: a sign of the mixed feelings immigration evokes in Congress.

“There are a lot of different groups, as you know — some of them bipartisan, some of them Republicans only — discussing the way forward,” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell told reporters at a press conference last Tuesday. “In the Senate, on those rare occasions when we have these kinds of open debates, whoever gets to 60 wins. It will be an opportunity for a thousand flowers to bloom.”

He stressed that “there’s no secret plan to push this in any direction.”

“The Senate’s going to work its will,” he said.

The greatest disparity of opinion is among the Republicans. (Democrats, for their part, are largely united in their objective: a path to citizenship for Dreamers, with funding for border security thrown in as a compromise.) Moderate Republicans like Sens. Jeff Flake of Arizona and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina are keen on securing protection — though not necessarily immediate citizenship — for Dreamers, along with funding for a border wall and an end to the diversity visa lottery, which aims to bring immigrants to the U.S. from underrepresented countries and is a particular bête noire of conservatives.

Some conservatives, like Sen. Tom Cotton of Arkansas and a number of his Republican peers in the House of Representatives, call for a far less generous compromise. A bill introduced on Sunday night by Cotton and other Republicans, called the Secure and Succeed Act of 2018, would provide a path to citizenship for 1.8 million DACA beneficiaries, but also allocate $25 billion for border security, eliminate the diversity visa lottery and drastically curtail so-called “chain migration,” limiting family-based immigrant visas to spouses and unmarried children younger than 18.

This proposal largely echoes the outline provided by Trump in late January.

When the debate begins on Monday night, many skeptics will be watching. In a meeting with reporters last week, Flake, who has been an outspoken voice within his own party for a moderate immigration solution, hedged his optimism about reaching a deal.

“It’s tough to see,” Flake said. “The problem is, right now, most people on the Democratic side see symmetry in the president’s 1.8 million [DACA recipient] figure for the border security money. They’re saying: ‘we can swallow the wall; it’s a tough sell among the base, but we can do that in exchange for the 1.8 million.'”

Republicans, he continued, were less flexible. “Most people on my side on the aisle see a different type of symmetry. Symmetry to them would just be an extension of DACA. As soon as you add in a path to citizenship, you have to deal with chain [migration] and a lot of other things.”

And any bill that passes the Senate then faces an uncertain future in the House. There, Republicans are on the whole far less amenable to compromise with Democrats on the matter of immigration. Speaker of the House Paul Ryan has not committed to any legislative outline, saying only that he would said back a bill that would earn Trump’s support. Conservative Republicans in the lower chamber have clamored for a vote on a hardline bill sponsored by Rep. Bob Goodlatte, but even if it sees a vote in the House, it would invariably fail in the Senate.

Still, Ryan said he was dedicated to finding a solution — in some form. “If anyone doubts my intention to solve this problem and bring up a DACA and immigration reform bill, do not,” he told reporters last week. “We will bring a solution to the floor, one the president will sign.”

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