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With time running out, immigration reform suddenly has a pulse

Can a bipartisan deal on immigration policy cross the finish line before the end of Congress' lame-duck session? Maybe.


The basic elements of a bipartisan compromise on immigration policy have been the same for nearly two decades. During George W. Bush’s presidency, there was a breakthrough compromise that included increased border security — addressing a Republican priority — and protections for “Dreamers” and other undocumented immigrants — addressing a Democratic priority. The deal failed when House Republicans balked.

During Barack Obama’s presidency, an eerily similar compromise took shape and passed the Senate with relative ease. It also failed when House Republicans balked.

During Donald Trump’s presidency, there was an additional wrinkle when the White House insisted on literal, physical border barriers — a so-called “wall” — but even when Democrats agreed to the terms of an agreement, Republicans rejected the compromise.

With this recent history in mind, reform advocates on the left and right have kept expectations low during Joe Biden’s presidency. Indeed, once it became clear that the House GOP would soon reclaim a majority, the odds of success quickly evaporated. But as NBC News reported, the door that appeared closed is suddenly ajar once again.

A bipartisan Senate duo has launched a last-minute push to enact immigration reform before the end of the year. Sens. Kyrsten Sinema, D-Ariz., and Thom Tillis, R-N.C., have been sharing with colleagues what they are calling a “draft framework.”

On Capitol Hill, there tends to be a difference between “draft frameworks” and actual legislative text. When Sinema and Tillis appear to have done is settle on a series of compromise measures, which aren’t yet final, and which are circulating in the form of a blueprint instead of a bill. It’s a big step toward progress, but even the most ambitious optimists will concede that the race to the finish line won’t be easy.

First and foremost, it’s important to acknowledge what’s in the new plan. The Washington Post’s Greg Sargent was first to report yesterday on the contents of the agreement, which includes a path to citizenship for 2 million “Dreamers,” new resources to speed up the processing of asylum seekers, expedited removal of migrants who don’t qualify for asylum, an extension of the Title 42 Covid health restrictions, and, of course, increased investments for Border Patrol and border security.

Funding for a certain former president’s “wall” was not included.

The next question is whether there will be time for success. Congress’ lame-duck session is quickly running out of calendar, and lawmakers’ to-do list is not short. With limited time, congressional leaders still intend to tackle a defense spending bill, a possible omnibus package that would prevent a shutdown and fund the government through the rest of the fiscal year, reforming the Electoral Count Act, and possibly even passing cannabis reforms through the HOPE Act.

Adding a big push on immigration reform to the mix creates an obvious new challenge.

Complicating matters, senators who are ordinarily involved in immigration negotiations have been slow to endorse the Sinema/Tillis deal — not because they’re against it, but because the process has moved so quickly that they don’t know enough about what it’s in it.

Nevertheless, we’re confronted with a familiar question: Could this blueprint pick up the 10 Republican votes it’d need to overcome a Senate GOP filibuster? In theory, yes. In fact, let’s not forget that several immigration deals have passed the upper chamber in the 21st century with more than 60 votes.

But in practice, Republican politics continues to move to the right on immigration, and just about everyone involved in the process seems to agree that threading this needle, quickly and effectively, will pose a serious challenge.

If reformers come up short, a GOP-led House will almost certainly block progress on the issue until 2025 at the earliest. Lawmakers know this to be true, creating new pressures to try to work something out before it’s too late.

Postscript: I won’t pretend to know whether the Sinema/Tillis plan will work out, but if it doesn’t, there’s a separate bipartisan effort, pushed by Democratic Sen. Michael Bennet of Colorado and Republican Sen. Mike Crapo of Idaho, that’s focused specifically on providing a pathway to citizenship for some undocumented farmworkers. It’s worth keeping an eye on, too.