President Donald Trump is once again urging Congress to debate comprehensive immigration reform, and Congress, once again, knows it is unrealistic.
“We seem to never fail to miss an opportunity to fail,” Sen. John Cornyn (R-TX) told Vox of Congress’s appetite for yet another immigration fight.
Trump announced the broad outlines of an immigration plan Thursday, one that revisits calls to overhaul the legal immigration system, cuts back family-based immigration for “merit-based” immigration, and changes the nation’s green card system to prioritize high levels of education, English-language fluency, and professional skill. It also touches on additional security on the border. Notably, as Vox’s Dara Lind explained, the outline does not address the undocumented immigrants currently living in the United States and pivots away from talking only on the urgent crisis of undocumented crossing the southern border, which have dominated Trump’s immigration tirades of late.
Notably, when asked about Trump’s proposal, Republicans in Congress were more focused on the border and undocumented immigrants living in the country than on the legal immigration reforms Trump was bringing back into focus.
“We are still working on all the specifics,” Sen. John Barrasso (R-WY) said. “But we have to continue to work on it because I believe the crisis on the border is getting worse.”
Underlying it all was an acknowledgment that this certainly is not the first time Trump has tried to push lawmakers into a debate on immigration, and it typically doesn’t go anywhere.
“Life in the Capitol: like one of those DVDs with a scratch that automatically rewinds to the previous scene,” one Republican congressional aide described it.
Trump’s latest immigration push is not real in Congress
Republican lawmakers on Thursday expected Trump only to share broad “principles,” Cornyn said. And that’s mainly what Trump did.
In addition to his typical talking points about securing the border, he has come back to comprehensive immigration reform — including legal immigration. The White House said explicitly that the Obama-era Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, which currently protects roughly 700,000 young undocumented immigrants brought to the United States as children, was off the table.
But to be clear, the White House hasn’t given Congress an actual bill or even a path forward on one. When Trump’s advisers, son-in-law Jared Kushner and ultra-conservative adviser Stephen Miller, came to the Capitol to pitch Republican senators on this immigration outline, lawmakers reportedly left with more questions than answers.
Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC), who chairs the Senate Judiciary Committee, with purview over immigration policy, told reporters then: “We all know you’re not going to pass this without dealing with the other aspects of immigration.” Graham has been working on his own bill, which would extend how long families and minors can be detained at the border.
Even more explicitly, Cornyn told Bloomberg that this was all about Trump’s reelection bid: “I think he needs to run on it, and those like me who think it’s a pretty good idea will run on it, and when we win the election, he can claim a mandate and hopefully get something done,” Cornyn, who himself is up in 2020, said. “I don’t think the Democrats are going to cooperate.”
And despite the White House’s efforts to move away from DACA, Senate Republicans are still talking about the program as a central piece to any immigration bill.
“I’d like to see solutions to immigration issues: border security and DACA,” Sen. Jerry Moran (R-KS) said when asked if there was actually any momentum to get Trump’s plan underway.
He added, “Fixes to immigration are always a challenge here and it takes threading a needle.”
They’re even more of a challenge these days, as Democrats hold the majority in the House. Even if Republicans can find consensus around legal immigration reform (which they have failed to do in the past), Democrats have already shown they have little interest in adopting a Trump immigration agenda. After all, this legislative session started with a government shutdown over the president’s southern border wall — and Democrats didn’t back down.
Trump has pushed Republicans to debate immigration time and time again
Trump came into office after winning an election stoking fear over immigration. But Republican lawmakers, knowing it was a contentious issue that would divide their party rather than unite it, said they would steer clear of immigration unless Trump forced their hand. It didn’t take long for Trump to do exactly that.
Trump’s rhetoric and his administration’s policies have led to countless flare-ups over immigration on Capitol Hill. Trump has asked for border wall funding. Since then, every government spending bill negotiation has come with an element of will-they-or-won’t-they on the wall funding when it comes to Congress. (So far, they haven’t, even when Trump decided to shut down the government over it.)
Trump’s administration has said it would sunset the DACA; Congress sputtered through every attempt. After nearly three years, the fate of DACA remains in legal limbo.
The administration implemented a “zero tolerance” policy at the border for undocumented crossings, a policy that led to separating thousands of families and detaining children. Again, Congress failed to act.
It’s not for a lack of debate. In early 2018, the Senate dedicated an entire week to voting on immigration reform bills; all four proposals — two bipartisan — failed. Then in the months leading to the midterm elections, House Republicans took up immigration again, this time on a partisan basis. But they couldn’t even reach a consensus within their party.
And Trump has positioned himself on every side of this debate. There was the time he seemingly struck a deal with Democratic leaders Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer to exchange the border wall for DACA, only for Miller, the White House’s resident immigration hawk, to scrap the deal in favor of more comprehensive immigration reform. That comprehensive bill — which cut legal immigration levels, funded the border wall, and created a path to citizenship for the nearly 1.8 million undocumented immigrants currently eligible for DACA — failed.
The point is, we’ve been here before. Except this time, the politics is even more complicated: Democrats control the House.