It’s the end of the year, and Congress is scrambling to get as much done as possible in the lame-duck session. While there are plenty of must-pass pieces of legislation to finish, two senators are trying to whip up support for something that has been impossible in the last decade: immigration reform.
There are pieces in the proposal from Sens. Kyrsten Sinema, I-Ariz., and Thom Tillis, R-N.C., that make sense, and on the surface, it’s an example of the kind of bipartisan problem-solving that the Senate all too often eschews these days. It perfectly fits into the Sinema brand of legislation. But once you take a look under the hood, you can see this framework is already in danger of collapsing. Its joints are ill-fitting, and its structure is unsound.
Once you take a look under the hood, you can see this framework is already in danger of collapsing.
The best part of the proposal would include a pathway to citizenship for the roughly 2 million “Dreamers” who arrived in the U.S. as undocumented children. Democrats have been pursuing such a path for citizenship for the better part of a decade, even more so after the Trump administration nearly axed the Obama-era fix known as Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals.
But those Dreamers’ citizenship would come at a cost: an additional $25 billion for border security. NBC News reports that the funding would go toward “higher salaries for border patrol agents, and increased staffing and other resources for border patrol and border protection.”
That absolutely tracks with the balancing act Democrats have tried to pull on immigration for decades as they use “securing the border” as a carrot for Republicans to join their reform efforts. It’s a false dichotomy in my view, given the ever-changing guideposts for what a “secure” border looks like. But Sinema and Tillis’ proposal would also attempt to pull off a similar trade-off as a way to repair the broken asylum system at the southern border — and that’s where things really run into trouble for them.
The proposal would boost the strained asylum process with much-needed investments in more asylum officers, immigration lawyers and the immigration court system, which has been teetering on the edge of collapse. It would also create “regional processing centers” along the border to ease the bottleneck at ports of entry.
Given that this summer there were over 400,000 pending asylum cases, in theory expediting those cases with expanded facilities and more resources sounds great. But “expedite” here doesn’t just mean clearing the backlog; it also most likely means condensing the application process. According to Vox, after Sinema offered a related proposal last year, immigration advocates warned that “trying to speed up asylum processing to a 72-hour turnaround timeframe would infringe on the due process rights of asylum seekers, forcing snap decisions with potential life-or-death consequences.”
In exchange for those changes, Title 42 — the pandemic rule that allows asylum-seekers to be turned away at the border instantly — would remain in place for “at least a year,” according to NBC News. That alone is a non-starter for many Democrats who have chafed at the policy since the Trump administration put it into place. House Democrats just last week sent a letter warning Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas that the Biden administration can’t just replace Title 42 with more “punitive and failed deterrence” measures.
But when what progress being made further damages an already weakened system, then that’s incrementalism in name only.
By themselves, the 21 Democrats who signed that letter could tank the Sinema-Tillis framework in the House. But their opposition wouldn’t even come into play unless Republicans in the House and the Senate alike supported it in the first place. And that seems like a long shot — at best. Sinema and Tillis are reportedly hoping to get enough support in the coming days to include the provision in the must-pass omnibus spending bill that will keep the government open. Even if the proposal makes it into that bill, I predict that we’ll see a mutiny on both sides to strip it out.
I get that anything might seem better than the current stalemate over immigration. It’s also true that, in some cases, the best course is to hold your nose and vote for a flawed deal that gives you some of what you want. Sinema has excelled at taking small bites of the apple to push past Washington’s gridlock: a tweak to federal gun laws, major infrastructure investments, a bill about same-sex marriage. This framework fits right into that pattern. It offers an incremental step forward that is likely to have some bipartisan support.
But when what progress being made further damages an already weakened system to support asylum-seekers specifically and facilitate immigration more broadly, then that’s incrementalism in name only. It’s all moot, though, because the votes just aren’t going to be there for Sinema and Tillis. That’s not because there aren’t any good pieces in this proposed framework. There are. It’s because the “moderate” instinct to appease xenophobia and protect human rights can’t be reconciled.