Senators say they are close to a bipartisan immigration plan
Immigration activists hang a banner in the Capitol building in Washington this month. (John Moore / Getty Images)

 

As the White House pushed a 500-page immigration bill as the only option in Congress to help “Dreamers,” a bipartisan coalition of senators appeared close Wednesday to agreeing on an alternative proposal that may draw broader support.

Top Republicans back the administration approach from Sen. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa), the chairman of the Judiciary Committee. That measure protects 1.8 million Dreamers from deportation in exchange for massive long-term cuts in legal immigration of family members of immigrants. It also includes $25 billion for President Trump’s border wall and a ramp-up of border enforcement that would also increase the pace of deportations.

But even as White House aides framed any rival alternatives as unworkable bills that Trump would not sign into law, a group of senators, the Common Sense Coalition, led by Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), appeared on the verge of a breakthrough on a different strategy.

Their proposal would likely take a more narrow approach favored by Democrats, linking Dreamer protections and the $25 billion in border security. It would steer clear of the more complicated issues of family visas or legal migration limits that have drawn sharp opposition to the White House approach.

While many senators from both parties have come to agree that Congress should protect the Dreamers, there is no such consensus around what to do about their parents, who brought the Dreamers to the United States illegally as children. Dreamers have been protected against deportation from an Obama-era program that Trump is ending.

“Our group from the very beginning has been committed to coming up with a bipartisan plan on immigration, and that is what it appears we’ve been able to do,” Collins told reporters.

The group of about 25 senators has been meeting privately, including Wednesday morning, and was expected to roll out legislative text later in the day as they began whip-counting ahead of possible votes, others said.

“I know that the president wants a result, and my experience in the Senate is that you’re more likely to be able to get a result when you have a bipartisan plan,” Collins said, “and that’s what we’re seeking.”

The White House panned the other bills ahead of possible votes as the Senate leadership push to wrap up debate this week.

“They’re just not serious proposals designed to actually become law in the United States,” said a White House official, briefing reporters on condition of anonymity. “You would basically be wasting Americans’ time and the Senate’s time going down some of the roads that people are talking about.”

Most proposals emerging in Congress, including the one from the White House, offer the young people a 10-year path to eventual citizenship — far beyond the protections under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program that only provide temporary permission to live and work in the United States.

White House officials consider the pathway to citizenship to be a “dramatic concession” that is “very large and generous.” Their proposal, under Grassley’s bill, goes beyond the nearly 700,000 immigrants currently protected under DACA, and extends to other young immigrants who either did not initially qualify or sign up for the Obama program.

“We went as far as we could in that direction, but any further and the House would never take up the bill and the president wouldn’t be able to sign it,” a White House official said.

The White House said it dropped earlier demands such as requiring businesses to use E-Verify, a federal database that allows employers to check the immigration status of new hires.

The bill is backed by top Republicans, including Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.).

Congress is trying to develop a solution before Trump ends the DACA program March 5. That could leave Dreamers exposed to deportation, but court actions have temporarily blocked the program’s termination.

Senators and many lawmakers in the House reject the White House proposal as too far-reaching. It had no Democratic support as debate in the Senate on immigration entered its third day and senators scrambled to find consensus.

Instead, the bipartisan effort from Collins and the other senators would provide the border funds and Dreamer protections, but prevent Dreamers from sponsoring their parents for temporary or permanent legal status, as has been proposed in other bills and is now allowed for others who gain citizenship under immigration law.

“It’s a bitter pill — to deal with $25 billion for the wall and not be able to have Dreamers claim their parents — but the choice is that or nothing,” said Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.).

“We’re conceding that the kids are without blame,” said Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.), who worked with the bipartisan group. “You can’t reward parents who brought them across.”

Other bills have been offered, most offering Dreamers a decade-long path to citizenship along with border funds, with more narrow or expansive reforms to other immigration laws.

A bipartisan effort from Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Sen. Chris Coons (D-Del.) reflects a House bill that sticks with Dreamer protections and border security.

One proposal from Flake tries to bridge the divide between the White House and Democrats by reallocating family visas to other categories, including for high-tech workers, entrepreneurs and those with advanced degrees. Another from Flake simply extends the DACA program for several years, with border security funds, while Congress addresses broader reforms.

Democrats, and some Republicans, have objected to using the DACA debate to enact sweeping immigration law changes that have traditionally been considered as part of comprehensive efforts to deal with the broader population of 11 million immigrants living illegally in the U.S.

The White House’s proposal would increase deportation officers by more than 50% from about 5,000 to 8,500, and add some 6,370 Border Patrol agents to a current force of about 20,000, an increase of about a third.

Immigration judges would be increased to about 500, up from about 330. The number of government immigration lawyers would be increased as well, with an eye toward trying to get deportation cases resolved faster.

Funds going to Mexico through the Merida Initiative, designed to bolster anti-drug forces in Latin America, would be cut by half until Secretary of State Rex Tillerson can certify to Congress that Mexico has taken steps to slow illegal immigration and counter corruption.

 

Courtesy: LA Times

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