U.S. Senate launches free-for-all immigration debate

Sen. Thom Tillis’ (R-N.C.) immigration proposal is playing a key role in a rare debate with a wide range of ideas in play.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, accompanied by Sen. John Cornyn (R-TX), speaks with reporters following the weekly policy luncheons at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, U.S., February 13, 2018. REUTERS/Aaron P. Bernstein

WASHINGTON, D.C. – The U.S. Senate began a major, free-wheeling immigration debate this week, its first in nearly five years. The structure of the discussion was what made news, with some calling it a “jump ball.” The senate members voted 97 to 1 to begin the debate with only Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) voting against it. Majority Leader Mitch McConnell started by introducing an unrelated bill and opened the floor to amendments on immigration; any that got 60 votes becomes a part of the bill.  The result is becoming a patchwork of ideas and proposals, but also an open debate that members of both parties have called for.

“Whoever gets to 60 wins,” McConnell told reporters at a news conference.  “There’s no secret plan here to try to push this in any direction. The Senate is going to work its will, and I hope that we will end up passing something.”

Late on Monday, Senator John Cornyn, the No. 2 Republican, put tight time constraints on the normally slow-moving Senate.

“It’s this week or not at all,” Cornyn said of the need for quick Senate action. Speaking to reporters, he warned that the debate had to be “wrapped up” by Thursday, before next week’s congressional recess.

Democratic Senator Dick Durbin, Cornyn’s counterpart, told reporters he hoped a combination of the Senate’s 49 Democrats and independents, coupled with 11 Republicans, could get behind a final bill, propelling it to passage.

But Cornyn also warned against that strategy. “If they think … they can cobble together a handful of Republicans to go along with a majority of Democrats and somehow get it past the House and get the president to sign it, I think that’s a pipedream.”

The final product may offer a solution to the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, due to sunset March 5, by Trump’s executive order in September.  The program protects at least 700,000 illegal immigrants from deportation because they were brought to the U.S. as children.  DACA was enacted under executive order by Pres. Barack Obama.

On Tuesday, a federal judge in Brooklyn, New York, blocked the Trump administration from rescinding the DACA  program. The decision was similar to a ruling last month by a federal judge in San Francisco. The U.S. Supreme Court is due to consider whether to take up the administration’s appeal of the San Francisco ruling and could announce as soon as Friday afternoon whether it will hear the case that is being closely watched by 700,000 DACA participants.

The debate process is also including votes on a wide range of proposals that are in President Trump’s immigration proposal released in January. The framework is in a bill called the Secure and Succeed Act being introduced by Tillis, along with Sens. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa; John Cornyn, R-Texas; and others. It includes many elements of Tillis’ original Succeed Act, including the merit-based system to allow DACA recipients to remain in the U.S. and build toward a decade-long path to citizenship. It also includes building a U.S.-Mexico border wall and sharply curtailing chain migration by limiting visas to spouses and children.

Credit: USDA/Bob Nichols.

“Even among those who’ve never supported a path to citizenship before, there’s broad consensus that this is a workable, viable, compassionate framework,” said Tillis on the floor of the Senate on Monday.

McConnell threw his support behind that outline on Tuesday, calling it the “best chance” for agreement because it already has the support of President Trump. 

“This proposal has my support and during this week of fair debate I believe it deserves support of every senator who’s ready to move beyond making points and actually making a law,” McConnell, a Republican, said in a speech on the Senate floor Tuesday.

House Speaker Paul Ryan said last week that the House would take up the Senate’s measure if they knew it had the green-light from the president.

“Let’s produce a result. Let’s not get up here and talk about and say ‘well, I tried,” said Tillis. “Let’s provide certainty for those waiting for us to act, those DACA recipients. Let’s secure our border and modernize our broken immigration system and if we do that, we’ve done a great thing.”

On Tuesday, additional plans are under consideration including one co-sponsored by Sen. Christopher A. Coons (D-Del.) and Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) that would grant legal status to dreamers in the country since 2013 but not immediately authorize money to build out southern border wall. Coons told reporters he may add border security money to bring in more Republican support.

Lawmakers are due to take a scheduled recess next week.