Senate GOP’s Immigration Bill Without Path to Citizenship Panned

Democratic lawmakers and even some Republicans have concerns

Senate Judiciary Chairman Charles E. Grassley supports offering immigrants enrolled in the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program three years of protected status in return for enhanced border security, a crackdown on “sanctuary” cities and other GOP immigration priorities. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)

Senate Democrats and even some Republicans are panning a GOP bill designed to protect undocumented young people and toughen immigration laws because it would not offer the so-called Dreamers a path to citizenship.

The bill, introduced this week by Senate Judiciary Chairman Charles E. Grassley and Majority Whip John Cornyn, would offer Dreamers enrolled in the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, or DACA, three years of protected status in return for enhanced border security, a crackdown on “sanctuary” cities and other GOP immigration priorities.

But members of both parties say there’s no deal without offering Dreamers a chance to become citizens.

“I don’t support a final resolution without a path to citizenship,” said Sen. Lindsey Graham, who is co-sponsoring bipartisan legislation preferred by most Democrats.

The South Carolina Republican said Wednesday that if the DACA provisions in the Grassley-Cornyn bill were switched out for something more closely resembling his own measure, the so-called DREAM Act, “then you’re well on your way to a deal.”

Sen. John McCain, who worked with Graham to craft a bipartisan immigration overhaul package that passed the Senate with 68 votes in 2013, said he had not read the entire text of the Grassley-Cornyn proposal. But the Arizona Republican noted he’s “always supported Dreamers having a path to citizenship.”

Democrats say the GOP proposal is a nonstarter, and not only because they consider the DACA provisions insufficient. Sen. Robert Menendez said he doubted Democrats would support the bill even if it included a path to citizenship for Dreamers because they object to other immigration provisions.

“That’s not going to work. They’re talking about permanent changes to our immigration system in return for a small fix for 800,000 Dreamers,” the New Jersey Democrat said. “The bottom line is, we can consider some border enforcement issues, but not those massive changes. They’re going to have to do much better than that.”

President Donald Trump has given lawmakers six months to find a permanent legislative solution for DACA recipients before he ends the Obama-era program in the spring. Democrats say they’re willing to compromise on border security, but extensive changes to immigration laws are off the table. Since Democratic support is required to get the 60 votes needed to pass the bill, the measure as it is written stands no chance of passage.

Watch: DACA Protesters Sit on Senate Steps, Get Arrested

“We’re talking about the DREAM Act before the end of the year and we’re willing to talk to Republicans about what it will take to get them to that position,” said Senate Minority Whip Richard J. Durbin, who co-authored the legislation with Graham.

But the Illinois Democrat declined to say which, if any, of the Republican priorities in the bill his party might be willing to support in return for a path to citizenship.

“This all has to be negotiated,” he said.

Cornyn would not say whether he would support a path to citizenship for Dreamers if Democrats agreed to the rest of the immigration bill. “We can talk about it,” the Texas Republican said.

Even Republicans who signed on to the Grassley-Cornyn bill don’t believe it can pass as currently written.

“I can’t imagine right now that we would have sufficient votes to pass it in its current form, so by definition, it’s going to have to change to get bipartisan support,” Sen. Thom Tillis said.

The North Carolina Republican has introduced separate legislation with Oklahoma GOP Sen. James Lankford that would establish a path to citizenship but would not immediately allow Dreamers to sponsor family members for green cards. Tillis said he is unlikely to support a bill that, in its final form, does not grant citizenship.

“I think that it will not be a permanent solution if we fail to do that,” he said. “I think we have to continue to work on it.”

In the meantime, Tillis said, the Grassley-Cornyn measure is meant to stake out a starting point for negotiations.

“We’re trying to just stimulate a good-faith negotiation here knowing that in order to get a broader base of people to support the [bill] that we’re going to have to move off certain positions,” he said.

Lankford echoed Tillis’ statements.

“This is the beginning point of the conversation to be able to determine how we get this and put something forward that could get wide support among our conference,” he said.

Lankford said he would not insist on including a path to citizenship in the bill before voting for it, but indicated that the legislation in its current form does not provide the permanent solution he wants.

Citizenship “is not a must-have for me,” he said. “Resolving it permanently is a must-have for me.” 

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