Six senators to watch in debate over fate of young immigrants

California Attorney General Kamala Harris speaks at the Center for American Progress’ 2014 Making Progress Policy Conference in Washington November 19, 2014. REUTERS/Gary Cameron

Senate negotiations aiming to prevent another U.S. government shutdown over immigration feature a variety of factions, hard-liners, political actors and presidential hopefuls who will determine whether people who arrived in the U.S. illegally as children will be spared deportation.

Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has promised to bring up immigration legislation by Feb. 8 in a fair and neutral process – whether or not there’s a deal beforehand.

President Donald Trump fleshed out his offer at the State of the Union on Tuesday: a path to citizenship for 1.8 million undocumented immigrants who arrived as children — balanced against $25 billion for border security and internal enforcement, an end to a diversity visa lottery, and drastic reductions in family-based migration. Only immigrants’ spouses and minor children would be allowed.

Trump’s plan was swiftly eviscerated by the left as cruel, while some anti-immigration conservatives blasted it as overly generous to lawbreakers, indicating the passions underlying the ideological divide.

The president’s decision to end the Obama-era program known as Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals on March 5 means the beneficiaries could face deportation if Congress fails to act. And the government could shut down again after current funding ends Feb. 8 if Congress doesn’t meet Democrats’ demand to protect the young immigrants alongside a new budget deal.

A number of controversial issues would have to be resolved, including: Will the immigrants be guaranteed permanent residency and, eventually, citizenship? What will become of their parents who are already in the U.S.? And how far is Congress willing to go to cut legal immigration though family sponsorships?

Among the 100 senators, here are six to watch in the debate over immigration:

– John Cornyn: The No. 2 Senate Republican, from Texas, has the voting record of an immigration hard-liner and the demeanor of a sympathetic dealmaker. He voted against comprehensive immigration overhaul bills in 2006, 2007 and 2013. He voted against Dream Act legislation in 2007 and 2010 that would have given permanent residency to a similar group of undocumented immigrants who arrived as children.

This time, he said he wants to craft legislation he can support.

“I’m having three meetings a day,” he said. “Lot of interest in getting to a solution.”

He said he’ll be a “facilitator” with Dick Durbin of Illinois, the chamber’s No. 2 Democrat.

Cornyn’s task will be to bridge a vast and bitter divide between a passionate core of anti-immigration Republican voters and an American electorate that is overwhelmingly sympathetic to the young immigrants, known as dreamers. He’s ruled out a simple measure to legalize the immigrants.

– Dick Durbin: Durbin is the Democrats’ liaison for striking a deal. He wrote the original Dream Act of 2001 and has made protecting the young immigrants a career-defining cause. This time, he is cosponsoring legislation with Republican Senator Lindsey Graham that promises citizenship to dreamers who meet certain criteria, while giving their parents renewable legal status.

Durbin bashed the White House proposal as holding dreamers hostage to Trump’s “crusade to tear families apart” and enact a hard-line agenda that includes “massive cuts to legal immigration.”

There’s a long way to go in the talks, Durbin said last week. “We’re going to start negotiations with a clean slate,” he said. “There is not even an agreement on a starting point.”

One of his demands is to protect dreamers’ parents from deportation — a contentious issue as many Republicans view them as lawbreakers for bringing their children to the U.S. illegally. “If they’re going to include family reunification limitations, that is an absolute essential,” Durbin said.

– Lindsey Graham: The South Carolina Republican has spent years pleading with his party to appeal to the fast-growing Hispanic electorate, warning that being anti-immigration is a formula for political extinction. He cosponsors the DACA legislation in the Senate with Durbin. Once a fierce Trump critic, he’s now a frequent defender and golfing buddy of the president.

“Today’s DACA recipients can be tomorrow’s Trump Dreamers,” if lawmakers reach an agreement, he said in a statement last week.

He has been at the center of failed immigration efforts for years, but says this time is different.

“I’ve never seen this movie where you’ve got a March 5 deadline,” he said. Still, a legal challenge to the Trump administration’s effort to undo the DACA policy has put that deadline in question.

– Tom Cotton: The Arkansas Republican represents the right flank of the DACA debate and strongly supports Trump’s calls to cut family-based immigration, which he calls “chain migration.”

“We believe in an unlimited number of sponsorships for spouses and unmarried minor children. But not for parents, not for adult kids, not for married kids, not for siblings,” he said.

Cotton, who called the White House proposal “generous and humane,” could be a barometer for the sentiments of conservative skeptics who fault Trump for ceding too much on “amnesty.” His position — along with those of like-minded hard-liners like Georgia’s David Perdue and Iowa’s Chuck Grassley — could go a long way in swaying hesitant House Republicans to support the bill. That in turn would help determine whether Speaker Paul Ryan moves forward with it.

Cotton has also described as “a joke” a diversity visa lottery program aimed at people in countries with low levels of immigration to the U.S. “It should just be ended,” he said.

– Kamala Harris: The first-term California Democrat reflects the progressive side of the debate. She’s from a blue state with the largest number of dreamers – more than 200,000 – and is seen as a possible presidential candidate in 2020. She’ll have her finger on the pulse of the party base.

It’s not clear how much Harris is willing to concede to get a solution, especially if she’s trying to position herself to challenge Trump. She said the president’s plan is “a complete nonstarter. Pitting young dreamers against immigrant families runs counter to the values of our country.”

In an interview, Harris said she supports border security measures as well as passage of the Dream Act. “I’ve always felt that some security measures are appropriate,” she said. “I want a secure border.” But she said she opposes cutting family-based immigration sponsorship and eliminating the diversity lottery program.

Harris is among several Democratic senators who are seen as possible presidential contenders – including New Jersey’s Cory Booker, New York’s Kirsten Gillibrand and Massachusetts’s Elizabeth Warren – and there may be jockeying among them.

– Cory Gardner: The first-term Colorado senator is chairman of the GOP’s Senate election committee, which means he’ll be keenly attuned to the politics of any immigration deal as the party wades into primary season.

He cosponsored the Graham-Durbin bill.

It’s a big issue in Colorado, which has thousands of immigrants protected under DACA, as well as a growing Hispanic population that helped Democrat Hillary Clinton win the state in the 2016 presidential contest.

Despite being near the center of the debate, Gardner plays down his role. “Oh, there are going to be 100 people who have an opinion in this,” he said, “and they’ll all get part of the say.”

Cornyn expressed some frustration with the negotiations on Monday, tweeting: “On #DACA, both parties seem to want the quid without the quo.”



Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here