WASHINGTON ― A bipartisan compromise on immigration reform fell apart this week in the Senate as Republicans heeded former President Donald Trump’s advice to kill it.
The deal’s demise showed Trump’s power over Republicans, but it also continued a long-running pattern in immigration politics where a group of Republicans and Democrats strike a compromise, and then the GOP bails.
Lawmakers reached bipartisan agreements on immigration in 2006, 2013 and 2018, pairing pathways to citizenship for undocumented immigrants ― the thing Democrats wanted ― with border security for Republicans. Each time, Republicans walked away decrying “amnesty” for illegal aliens.
This time, the deal changed. Republicans would get tougher border security, including provisions Democrats had criticized during the Trump administration as unacceptable, without agreeing to a pathway to citizenship. Instead, they would agree to a package of military aid for Ukraine, Israel and Taiwan. Again, Republicans negotiated the deal ― and then sprinted away from it.
One reason may be that advocating for stricter immigration policy, regardless of the actual results, is just plain easier than demanding a fairer and more just process for people who are not U.S. citizens, said Jorge Loweree, managing director of programs and strategy at the American Immigration Council.
“You’re preying on people’s fears,” Loweree said, “and if you can do that successfully, there’s very little that can be done to bring somebody back from that.”
In 2006 and 2013, the Senate approved bills that would have beefed up border enforcement while creating a pathway to citizenship for as many as 11 million undocumented immigrants, only for the legislation to stall out in a Republican-controlled House.
For a brief moment in 2018, it seemed like Donald Trump wanted to break the cycle. He invited Republicans and Democrats to the White House and called for a bipartisan compromise on immigration, one that would address border security and create a pathway to citizenship for “Dreamers,” or undocumented immigrants brought to the U.S. as children.
“I’m appealing to everyone in the room to put the country before party, and to sit down and negotiate and to compromise, and let’s see if we can get something done,” Trump said at the start of the meeting, adding that he was open to “comprehensive immigration reform” ― a concept Republicans loathed.
It was a stunning moment: The very man who’d won the White House describing border crossers as criminals, drug dealers and rapists was suddenly open to letting some become citizens.
In case it wasn’t clear that Trump was expressing a willingness to betray the Republican base with a comprehensive bill, he added: “If you want to take it that further step, I’ll take the heat, I don’t care.”
Senators got to work and a month later came up with a bipartisan agreement with $25 billion for border security, including for Trump’s wall, and an eventual path to citizenship for more than 1 million Dreamers ― but not their parents or millions of other undocumented immigrants. Eight Republicans and seven Democrats and one independent signed on.
That same day, however, Trump put out a surprise negative statement, saying the legislation needed to change the process for sponsoring visas. No additional Republicans announced support for the bill, and it went down in flames on the Senate floor.
This week in an interview with HuffPost, Sen. Chris Coons (D-Del.), one of the senators involved in the legislation, recalled feeling that Trump’s White House meeting created a glorious opportunity for progress.
“And he freakin’ killed it,” Coons said of Trump. “And he just succeeded in doing that again.”
The immigration proposal lawmakers announced this week is more tilted toward Republicans than the one on offer in 2018, and much more so than the earlier proposals. The bill entirely omitted the usual pathways to citizenship (except for Afghans who’d helped the U.S. military). It would have sped asylum claims, but made it more difficult for migrants to prevail based on fears of persecution back home. The bill would have allowed the government to more easily expel migrants on the border, and create a new emergency authority for summary deportations if daily border crossings reach certain thresholds.
The big prize for Democrats was billions to help Ukraine defend itself from Russia’s invasion, something that has become a problem for far-right Republicans who hold outsized sway in the House of Representatives. Progressives slammed the proposal, while the conservative U.S. Border Patrol union endorsed it.
But before the text had even been released, Donald Trump began directly lobbying senators to walk away, saying he wanted to deprive Biden of a victory ahead of November’s election.
“I think the border is a very important issue for Donald Trump,” Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah) said. “And the fact that he would communicate to Republican senators and congresspeople that he doesn’t want us to solve the border problem because he wants to blame Biden for it is really appalling.”
In public polling, immigration is one of Trump’s strongest issues against President Joe Biden, whom he and other Republicans have long accused of intentionally allowing migrants to cross the border. The issue is expected to be a major focus of the GOP’s ad campaign against Biden in the run up to November’s elections.
Rather than cite Trump’s electoral prospects, Republicans opposed to the bill falsely said it would give “amnesty” to illegal immigrants. The Ukraine-border bill died by filibuster this week.
“I don’t know that it’s the Republican policy thinking that’s changed,” Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.) said. “It’s their complete, craven loyalty to Trump. That is the factor that has really moved this.”
Without criticizing the former president, Sen. James Lankford (R-Okla.), the lead Republican negotiator, has been remarkably candid about the dynamic among his colleagues.
“Are we, as Republicans, going to have press conferences and complain the border is bad and then intentionally leave it open after the worst month in American history in December?” Lankford said on Fox News this week, referring to the record number of migrants border officials encountered that month.
“If I go back two months ago and say we had the shot under a Democrat president to dramatically increase detention beds, deportation flights, lock down the border, to be able to change the asylum laws, to be able to accelerate the process, no one would have believed it,” Lankford said.
Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), a Trump loyalist who has been at the center of several previous bipartisan negotiations, said it’s the policy area itself, not Trump’s interference, that has put compromise out of reach.
“It’s just a hard topic,” Graham said. “It’s not a Trump problem, it’s an institutional problem.”
The politics of immigration have not shifted to the right in a vacuum. Two-and-a-half million migrants showed up at the southern border in 2023, more than in any prior year, and for the first time a majority of them were from places other than Mexico and northern Central America, according to the Migration Policy Institute. There have also been more family arrivals than in prior years.
“The reality of the situation of our southern border has changed considerably over the course of the last decade,” said Loweree, of the American Immigration Council. “We’re in the midst of a level of global displacement, displacement around the world that is unlike anything that we’ve ever seen. There are more people on the move in this moment than there ever have been in recorded history. There are four failed states in our hemisphere alone.”
Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) said that many of the undocumented immigrants who would have been eligible for citizenship under the bill he wrote in 2013 had overstayed visas, meaning they’d been previously approved by the government.
“In 2013, 400,000 people entered the country across our southern border. That’s almost the number that came in one month last year,” Rubio said. “This is a mass migration event where you have 7, 8, 9 million people that come across that border, both detected and undetected.”
After Republicans killed the immigration-and-foreign aid package, the Senate took up the foreign aid by itself and appears poised to approve it within a week ― as though right-wing leverage over the aid had been a phantom all along.
Graham said this week that he wanted a chance to add border provisions back into the bill. Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (I-Ariz.), who negotiated the bill with Lankford and Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.), suggested on Thursday that perhaps Graham should not have filibustered the earlier bill, since border amendments won’t be relevant to the foreign aid bill, and will therefore require a higher vote threshold to pass.
Murphy said passing up their chance to add tough border policies to the foreign aid bill could backfire on Republicans.
“They were counting on immigration being a clean political winner, and now it’s very complicated, because Democrats get to go on offense in a way that we couldn’t have just six months ago,” Murphy said. “We get to talk about the bipartisan bill that would have fixed the border that Republicans refused.”