The Biden administration’s struggle with a surge of unaccompanied children crossing the southern border is reverberating in Washington, potentially crushing the slim hope of accomplishing bipartisan immigration reform in Congress.
The House approved two immigration bills Thursday that would open up a path to citizenship for young undocumented immigrants and create an opportunity for undocumented farmworkers to attain legal status. Though both pieces of legislation received some Republican support, many GOP lawmakers in the Senate are unwilling to consider similar measures until concerns about the border are addressed.
The Dream and Promise Act, which would give 2.5 million undocumented immigrants brought to the U.S. as children—known as “Dreamers”—and 400,000 immigrants who have been granted Temporary Protective Status a chance to become citizens, passed with nine Republican votes. The Farm Workforce Modernization Act, which would offer legal status to about 1.5 million agriculture workers, got 30 Republican votes.
Prospects for both in the Senate are bleak at the moment, though. Unless Democrats change filibuster rules, they will need at least 10 Republican senators on board with any immigration bill, and they currently appear to have none.
“I’m not in support of legalizing one person until you’re in control of the border,” Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., who reintroduced the Dream Act in the Senate with Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., last month, told Politico.
Several other Republicans who have backed citizenship for Dreamers and moderate immigration reforms in the past also balked at voting on new legislation under the current circumstances. At the very least, they want any protections for undocumented immigrants paired with border security measures that would likely face resistance in the Democrat-controlled House.
White House officials have resisted calling the situation at the border a “crisis,” but they acknowledge resources and facilities are being overwhelmed. More than 4,000 children are currently in Border Patrol custody, and officials project they will encounter more migrants at the border this year than any time in the last 20 years.
“We have a challenge at the border, and what is clear from the last four years, is that chaos, cruelty, and confusion did not enhance security, and it did nothing to fix our immigration system,” deputy press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre told reporters on Air Force One Friday.
A surge of migrants attempting to cross the border began last spring, driven by the coronavirus pandemic, natural disasters, and worsening economic conditions in Central America. Since January, the number of children arriving at the border without their parents has spiked, and the administration is scrambling to find places to shelter them until they can be connected with family members or sponsors.
President Joe Biden has reversed many of former President Donald Trump’s immigration policies, though officials stress most people detained by Border Patrol agents are still removed from the country. Most unaccompanied children and some families have been allowed to stay, but the administration has tried to discourage more people from making the dangerous journey to the border.
“I can say quite clearly, don’t come,” President Biden said in an interview with ABC News that aired Wednesday.
However, Republicans and groups that favor stricter immigration laws maintain the passage of legislation like the Dream and Promise Act sends the opposite message. They claim any step in the direction of easing immigration enforcement will entice more people to enter the country illegally.
“These bills do not acknowledge the crisis at the border nor the abuse of our asylum process, much less offer any steps to remedy the situation,” said Dan Stein, president of the Federation for American Immigration Reform. “Instead, they offer a clear indication that amnesty and unchecked migration are now the biggest priorities of Democrats on the issue.”
Branding the situation “Biden’s border crisis,” supporters of Trump’s hardline approach to immigration assert Biden erred in racing to roll back the previous administration’s efforts to tighten the border. They have urged the White House to change course for the sake of Americans and migrants.
“If someone in the administration would simply pause, take a step back, and look at the big picture, he or she would see that what's being done is enticing more parents to send their children into smugglers' and traffickers’ arms, and he or she would realize this course of action must be stopped,” former Department of Homeland Security acting deputy chief of staff Lora Ries said in a Washington Examiner op-ed.
Immigrant advocates see little connection between U.S. policy and the flow of migrants at the border, noting the current surge began under Trump and even larger numbers of children arrived in 2019. Regardless of conditions at the border, they say now is the time to act to protect millions of undocumented immigrants already in the country.
“This is a settled debate. The American people want action, not excuses,” said Frank Sharry, executive director of America’s Voice. “We know Dreamers as our friends, family members, neighbors, and co-workers. The story is the same for TPS holders and farmworkers.”
The White House stressed Friday that immigration reform has been a bipartisan issue in the past, and many provisions in the House bills have previously drawn Republican support in the Senate. While nothing in either bill directly impacts the border, Ann Lin, an associate professor of public policy at the University of Michigan, said lawmakers recognize concerns about what is happening there could affect their constituents’ views.
“It matters in the sense that members of Congress and the president will be worried about the public reaction to the surge might affect the willingness to support either of these bills,” Lin said.
Experts say fears of sending the wrong message to migrants with new immigration laws are less well-founded. Central Americans making the trek to the U.S. get their information from friends, relatives, and smugglers, and their perceptions often are not rooted in the realities of U.S. immigration policy.
“Members of Congress tend to think people are waiting with bated breath to hear what the American government is going to do... What we do in terms of our laws does not affect what smugglers say that much,” Lin said.
President Biden has proposed a sweeping immigration reform bill that would offer a path to citizenship for more than 10 million undocumented immigrants, but Republicans hoping to retake control of Congress in 2022 have flatly rejected his agenda. Democrats believed narrower bills like the two the House passed Thursday had a better chance of success, but making any progress on a contentious issue in this political environment is an increasingly steep challenge.
Some Republicans have been willing to engage, to an extent. Freshman Rep. Maria Elvira Salazar, R-Fla., introduced a proposal this week that includes citizenship for Dreamers, a 10-year path to renewable legal status for undocumented immigrants without criminal records, and funding “an impenetrable border infrastructure system.”
Despite concerns about the Dream and Promise Act, she voted in favor of it Thursday in what she said was a show of good faith for finding a bipartisan solution that could pass in the Senate.
“I want to send the right message to the Democrats that I'm willing to work with them. Let's see now if they are going to work with us,” Salazar told reporters afterward.