In the Senate, Immigration Reform Hits a Wall


This week, the Senate took up debate on immigration reform, a long-awaited moment for both this chamber and the country. On the table were several politically charged issues, including both the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program and President Trump’s proposed border wall.

But after a week of unsuccessful bargaining and a series of failed votes, it’s important for city leaders to understand the context.

How Did We Get Here?

Earlier this month, in order to gain majority support for the continuing resolution in the Senate, Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) pledged to put federal immigration legislation on the Senate floor for a vote the week of February 12. True to his word, this week the Senate began debate and consideration of four immigration proposals.

Setting the backdrop for this debate were two key factors. The first is the need for legislative action to continue the DACA program, which provides immigrants registered under this program with legal protection from deportation and a path to eventual citizenship. Due to an executive order signed by President Trump earlier this year, DACA is set to expire on March 5, 2018.

The second is the White House framework on immigration reform, which was released on January 25. This document calls for reforms in four major categories:

  1. Border security, which includes $25 billion for a southern border wall and northern border improvements
  2. Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) legalization over a 10-12-year time-frame
  3. Ending extended-family chain migration by limiting sponsorship to spouses and minor children only
  4. Eliminating the visa lottery system to reallocate visas to reduce other immigration backlogs

The proposal by the White House was more broad than a simple legislative fix for DACA — but was somewhat out of step with previous bipartisan compromises in the Senate, passed in 2006 and 2013.

In repose to this proposal, NLC released a statement highlighting our long-standing policy position calling for comprehensive immigration reform. That position includes enforcement of current immigration laws and worksite enforcement, along with increased capacity for foreign nationals to obtain legal authorization for temporary visas or legal permanent residency.

What Happened on Thursday?

Following several days of uncertainty, the Senate ultimately considered four amendments to an underlying legislative vehicle that would have addressed both DACA and the President’s framework — as well as language directed at so-called “sanctuary cities.” These amendments were:

  1. McCain-Coons: Bipartisan legislation sponsored by Senators John McCain (R-AZ) and Chris Coons (D-DE) did not amass the 60 votes needed to overcome a filibuster, with a final 52-47 vote. Their bill called for a path to citizenship for 1.8 million so-called Dreamers as well as requiring the Department of Homeland Security to secure the border by 2021. This bill, however, did not include the President’s request for $25 billion for a border wall or the additional immigration reforms requested.
  2. Sanctuary Cities: The second vote of the day, an amendment offered by Senator Pat Toomey (R-PA), was a measure that would have withheld federal funding from so-called “sanctuary cities.” This vote also fell in a 55-44 vote. NLC sent a strong letter of opposition to all senators on this amendment prior to the vote.
  3. Common Sense Coalition: Legislation that was thought to have the greatest chance of receiving bipartisan support was voted down in a 54-45 vote. The legislation, which was backed by Senators Susan Collins (R-ME), Jeff Flake (R-AZ) and Lindsey Graham (R-SC), was the product of eight Republicans, seven Democrats and one independent senator. The president had openly promised to veto this bill due to its failure to include all four of his requests. The bill would have allowed approximately 1.8 million Dreamers to remain, providing them an eventual pathway to citizenship. It also included $25 billion in border security, and would have prevented the parents of Dreamers from being sponsored for citizenship.
  4. Grassley: The final vote of the day, a measure put forward by Senator Chuck Grassley (R-IA) that was based on the president’s framework, failed to pass in a vote of 39-60. The legislation would have provided $25 billion for border security, created a path to citizenship for the 1.8 million Dreamers, ended the visa lottery program, reduced chain migration to immediate family members, and withheld federal law enforcement grants from cities that the Department of Homeland Security determined to be sanctuary jurisdictions.

What’s Next?

With the March 5 deadline looming under President Trump’s executive order, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) said on Thursday that he would be open to bringing immigration legislation back to the Senate floor if it was clear that the measure had support from both the House and the president. An option would be to include a provision in the must-pass spending bill to keep the government funded past March 22.

Another option is for the House to take the lead. Representative Bob Goodlatte (R-VA) has proposed a piece of legislation which goes beyond the president’s four pillars and includes language that would require employers to use the E-Verify program for immigration status, create an agricultural guest worker program and withhold grants from sanctuary cities. This bill is universally rejected by House Democrats and the Republicans could lose no more than 22 votes to ensure its passage. Even if the bill were to pass the House, it is unlikely that it will receive the 60 votes needed to get through the Senate’s cloture rule.

Keep your eyes on the March 5 and 22 deadlines for these actions.

Program Director, Human Development
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