It seems increasingly likely that, on immigration, Congress will face a stark choice in the weeks ahead. It can either pass a narrowly drawn bill that attends to border security and provides legal status for Dreamers, the undocumented immigrants who were brought to the U.S. as children. Or it can fail across the board.
Republican Senator John McCain of Arizona and Democrat Chris Coons of Delaware have introduced legislation designed to achieve the better outcome. Their bill is similar to a bipartisan effort already introduced in the House, where it is co-sponsored by 27 Republicans and 27 Democrats.
It would grant legal status to Dreamers who’ve been in the U.S. since 2013, a population of approximately 1.8 million. The legislation would require the secretary of Homeland Security to produce a southern border security strategy, including “physical barriers,” to gain operational control and “situational awareness” along the border.
In other words, it requires construction of a strategic plan to improve security rather than construction of a wall, built willy-nilly at fantastic expense, to feign security.
Naturally, a basic immigration compromise that accomplishes sensible goals has committed enemies. President Donald Trump has already announced his opposition. And this bill is certainly far from the kind of comprehensive solution, involving limits on family sponsorships and a bigger emphasis on skills, that is required.
Nonetheless, it represents progress. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell promised to allow a debate on immigration if no deal is reached and Democrats help him keep the government open for a few more weeks. It’s a measure of how degraded the Senate has become that even debate on a vital national issue is up for negotiation, but there’s no use pretending the Senate is the great deliberative body of yore.
Democrats should meet McConnell’s demand, voting later this week to keep the lights on, and McConnell should in turn fulfill his promise. It’s entirely possible that there are 60 votes in the Senate to do the right thing. Coons is already proposing to add more security provisions to entice more Republicans to support the bill.
A win in the Senate would then focus attention on the House. Speaker Paul Ryan has so far shown every inclination to allow his party’s extremists to ruin any chance of success – even though the existence of 27 Republican co-sponsors signals that a simple compromise on Dreamers and border security could win majority support.
Of course, if Congress were sensitive to majorities, the Dreamer and border security provisions, supported by large majorities of voters, would already be law. If Ryan and company can break out of their partisan straitjacket for a day or two, perhaps they still can be.