Congress has been trying — and failing — to rewrite the nation’s immigration laws for many years. Trying to achieve consensus on immigration now, and to pass a bill that President Trump will sign, seems like a very difficult path to follow.
But with Trump and congressional Democrats at a stalemate on the shutdown, making immigration reform part of the negotiations is now being discussed seriously. And those discussions include senators from both parties.
“It’s come back to life again,” said Sen. Richard Shelby (R-Ala.), the chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, of a potential immigration deal. “We’ll see if it has legs.”
Immigration reform was reportedly discussed during a closed-door meeting at the White House on Wednesday that included Trump, congressional leaders and Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen.
Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), who attended the meeting, said the topic was mentioned briefly, “in a bleak way,” and he said he was reluctant to begin negotiations on immigration reform without Trump’s expressed support.
“I’ll tell ya, it’s such a bitter experience a year ago. And I told the president that I had a bitter experience,” he said after the meeting. “We’re not going to jump back in that until there’s a pretty clear public commitment from the president.”
Trying to solve immigration actually could create more obstacles and make resolving the shutdown even more difficult.
Democratic leadership will face intense pressure from the progressive wing of the party to take a tough stance on immigration. Likewise, from the right, Trump is facing great pressure and has shown he is susceptible to criticism when it comes from Fox News or conservative talk radio.
Sen. Roy Blunt (Mo.), a member of GOP leadership, said that expanding the scope of shutdown negotiations could be one way to break the logjam.
“You know, sometimes the best way to solve a problem is to make it bigger, and that’s always one of the options here,” Blunt said.
With no visible progress yet on resolving the border funding, more members of Congress are calling for immigration reform to be tied to the border wall talks.
During a Democratic leadership meeting this week Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) proposed reviving a 2013 immigration bill which included a pathway to citizenship for the undocumented immigrant population as well as $40 billion for border security.
Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) urged Trump to make a deal on comprehensive immigration reform. He said it could be his “Nixon to China” moment and bring an end to the partial government shutdown.
“Why would he not agree to such a thing?” Alexander said. “We could go small, we could go a little bigger … but I’d like to see the president say, ‘OK, we’ve got a new Congress. We’ve got divided government. I’m the president who can actually make this happen.’”
Other members are suggesting a smaller deal that would focus only on immigrants who were brought into the United States illegally when they were children.
One approach that may be gaining favor is to include a fix for Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) recipients. Members of both parties say they are sympathetic to immigrants who entered the country illegally as children. The issue has been put on the back burner while the fate of the DACA program is tied up in court.
GOP Sen. Susan Collins (Maine) said immigration reform should be on the table after she helped craft a deal last year that included $25 billion for border security in exchange for a path to citizenship for DACA recipients.
“I certainly think it’s worth considering,” Collins said Thursday. “Had the Department of Homeland Security not blasted it the night before, it clearly would have passed with more Republican support. So I do see that as a potential path out of this impasse.”
Meanwhile, Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio) is promoting a measure that would establish a $25 billion border trust fund and codify protections for DACA recipients. He argued on Thursday that it could be a “win-win” for both parties.
New House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) appeared to disapprove of linking the border wall fight and DACA recipients, telling reporters that they are “two different subjects.”
And Durbin, who said immigration was “near and dear to my heart,” admitted that Trump has said he supports and could work with Democrats on immigration reform.
“But he’s said that before,” Durbin noted. “DACA recipients hang on every word. I do not want them to get their hopes up until there’s a clear indication that the president supports this.”
There is no guarantee that a broader immigration discussion will resolve the border wall funding issue and government shutdown, but that fact that key members of Congress are discussing it is a very good sign.