The Senate was supposed to start debating immigration Tuesday — but the parties couldn’t stop arguing about how to begin.
There was consensus on the most basic ground rules: They’d start with a blank bill, then take a series of floor votes on competing Republican and Democratic amendments. But Chuck Schumer’s caucus wanted to keep all such amendments focused on the core points of contention: Dreamers, border security, the wall, and legal immigration. Mitch McConnell’s team, by contrast, wanted to begin the proceedings by forcing Democrats to vote on a proposal for defunding so-called “sanctuary cities.”
Even President Trump had declined to bring that issue into the debate over a replacement for the expiring DACA program. But the prospect of forcing Joe Manchin, Heidi Heitkamp, and Joe Donnelly to either vote for stripping federal funds from Chuck Schumer’s hometown or declare themselves soft on MS-13 proved irresistible for the GOP. And this proved unacceptable to the Democrats, who promptly placed a hold on debate, freezing the matter until Wednesday morning.
But while formal debate was frozen, bipartisan talks heated up. And on Wednesday morning, Senators Lindsey Graham and Susan Collins announced that a bipartisan group of senators had come to agreement on consensus legislation — a straight “amnesty for border wall” swap.
Graham tells Bloomberg that the bill would provide a pathway to citizenship for 1.8 million Dreamers, while appropriating $25 billion for Trump’s border wall. Last month, the president released an immigration plan that included both of those provisions — but paired them with the abolition of the diversity visa lottery and cuts to family-based immigration so sweeping, they would halve legal immigration in the medium-term.
Six months ago, the White House was struggling to get Congress to toss even a symbolic amount of funds at Trump’s proposed monument to American xenophobia. A $25 billion appropriation for the wall is far beyond what most observers thought possible last year. But then, one could say the same thing about this president giving 1.8 million American-raised, undocumented immigrants a pathway to citizenship. And Trump only ever made that offer to soften the edges of his radical proposals for reshaping American demography.
For the GOP’s more technocratic nativists, this deal is a disaster: A border wall is not actually an effective means of curbing of illegal immigration; and legalizing 1.8 million undocumented people — while preserving their right to sponsor the immigration of their siblings from overseas — is a recipe for what the (racist) kids call “white genocide,” and what senior White House official Michael Anton has described as “the ceaseless importation of Third World foreigners with no tradition of, taste for, or experience in liberty.”
But there’s a reason Trump’s cuts to legal immigration have fallen out of bipartisan talks: The proposal hurts a wide variety of Democratic constituencies, has little support from the business wing of the Republican Party, and (relatedly) would reduce economic growth, cut job creation, expand the deficit, and jeopardize the long-term survival of Social Security.
The Graham bill might antagonize Tom Cotton — but unlike his immigration ideas, Graham’s (probably) have the votes to pass the Senate. And if Trump decides to endorse Graham’s legislation, Paul Ryan should be able to get the compromise through the House.
Unfortunately for Dreamers (and/or, underemployed border-state construction workers), Trump has little interest in a two-pillar plan. Or, at least, that’s the message he’s currently sending. In the president’s view, the fact that his proposal included legal status for 1.8 million Dreamers (instead of merely the 700,000 who had received legal status from the Obama-era program he cancelled) — and that said legal status included a pathway to citizenship (instead of merely immunity from deportation) — is proof that he’s already compromised. Going on the record for mass amnesty already won the White House plenty of grief from the Breitbart right. So, Trump has made his big concession. The fact that said “concession” is a measure the president often claims to support — as a positive good, in its own right — is irrelevant. He mildly upset Steve King; now, he deserves whatever else he asks for.
That logic won’t hold in negotiations with Chuck Schumer. But Trump is less concerned with selling Senate Democrats on the fairness of his offer than he is with selling the public on the same. As Politico reports:
In Trump’s view, according to administration officials and GOP senators, he’s already compromised beyond where he and his staff felt comfortable by offering 1.8 million young undocumented immigrants a pathway to citizenship. And if Democrats want to step up this week and sink the president’s proposal, that will be on them, they said.
It seems to me this ought to be a pretty sweet bipartisan deal to solve the problem,” Sen. Roger Wicker (R-Miss.) said of the president’s proposal. If Democrats reject it, “I think we’re looking pretty good from a PR standpoint.”
“Anything that goes left of this wouldn’t even get taken up in the House. The president is not going to sign anything that doesn’t secure the four pillars,” said a senior administration official familiar with his thinking. “We took a lot of blowback. If you want the middle ground between Democrats and Republicans, this is the bill.”
It’s possible that the White House is right in its “PR” analysis.
While DACA is set to expire on March 5, two federal courts have now ordered the administration to maintain the program. The first ruling came in California in January; the second, in New York last night. In both cases, the judges found that the administration had a right to end DACA, but that the White House’s official explanation for doing so was legally dubious — and thus the move had been arbitrary and capricious.
The Trump administration did not seek a stay of that first ruling, even though the Supreme Court was likely to provide one. Instead, the White House began taking two-year renewal applications for DACA protection. The upshot of this is that, barring a change in policy or new judicial ruling, hundreds of thousands of DACA recipients will lose legal status on March 5 — but will be able to immediately apply to regain that status. At best, this will condemn hundreds of thousands of Dreamers to a harrowing few weeks of exposure to the threat of deportation, while the government processes their renewal applications.
Nonetheless, if the administration maintains “zombie DACA” past March 5 — and keeps ICE on a tight leash, at least where Dreamers are concerned — it’s possible that Trump will pay no significant penalty for holding the highly sympathetic population hostage to his far-right immigration demands.
But the administration is mendacious when it says that, “Anything that goes left of this wouldn’t even get taken up in the House.” That’s true in only the most trivial sense: Paul Ryan has said that as soon as there is an immigration bill that Trump supports, he will bring it to the floor.
If Trump wants an immigration compromise, he can have one. If he wants to spend campaign season whining about how obstructionist Democrats proved that they hate strong borders more than they love the Dreamers, he can have that, too. And right now, he’s apparently leaning toward door No.2.