As Senate Republicans continued to torch the Biden administration over its handling of the border situation this week, a funny thing happened: A bipartisan group of senators met to discuss immigration reform.
The meeting, convened Wednesday by Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin, was the first time this Congress that Democrats and Republicans have actually sat in the same room to discuss the issue, which has long befuddled lawmakers.
“You’ve got people all over the map, but I think if we really want to get something done then I think we’re going to have to try to show we’re working on what’s happening at the border right now,” said Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas), one of the meeting attendees.
The meeting came as senators from both parties acknowledged that a path forward on a comprehensive immigration bill is unlikely, particularly with the surge of migrants arriving at the border. And while Democrats have long pushed for legislation to offer permanent legal protections to undocumented immigrants brought to this country as children, Republicans are making it clear that they won’t support anything without additional border security.
Senators are “trying to get a sense of what parameters might be, and there’s another meeting coming up when we put some proposals on the table,” said Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), who introduced President Joe Biden's sweeping immigration reform proposal this Congress.
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“It was a good first discussion,” added Sen. Thom Tillis (R-N.C.). “ Nobody’s taken themselves out. I thought they were all genuinely interested.”
Cornyn told POLITICO he discussed the need to overhaul the current U.S. asylum system. He'd like to get asylum seekers in front of immigration judges immediately, instead of allowing them to remain in the U.S. while they await their court dates. Right now, the majority of migrants arriving at the border are kicked out before they can apply for asylum under a public health authority former President Donald Trump invoked in March 2020 at the start of the pandemic — which Biden has yet to revoke. Cornyn suggested pairing protections for Dreamers with asylum reform.
But Cornyn acknowledged the challenges of getting any kind of immigration legislation — including passing protections for Dreamers, which has been popular for years — through the Senate. “And comprehensive immigration is never going to work,” he added.
In addition to Cornyn and Tillis, GOP Sens. Susan Collins of Maine, Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and Mike Rounds of South Dakota attended the meeting. On the Democratic side, Sens. Alex Padilla of California, Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona, Chris Coons of Delaware, Michael Bennet of Colorado, Catherine Cortez Masto of Nevada and Ben Ray Lujan of New Mexico attended. Sens. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska and Mike Crapo of Idaho were invited, but couldn't attend.
Durbin has been holding one-on-one meetings with the GOP attendees for weeks, said a Democratic aide, laying the groundwork for Wednesday’s meeting. The group will meet again to get into more details after a high-level talk.
Last week, the House passed a pair of immigration bills to offer legal protections for Dreamers, Temporary Protected Status recipients and farmworkers, as well as reform the existing H-2A agricultural guestworker program.
Both bills passed with bipartisan support, but neither bill is likely to get the necessary 60 votes in the Senate, especially given the current focus on what Republicans are calling “Biden’s border crisis.” And it’s even less likely that Biden’s sweeping reform plan would receive any GOP support in its current form.
Meanwhile, the spotlight on the border situation isn’t going anywhere, as more delegations of lawmakers are traveling there to discuss what’s happening. Republicans are blaming Biden, who they argue has actively encouraged migrants to come by undoing Trump-era policies. And Democrats are largely placing the blame on four years of Trump’s efforts to seal off the border and dismantle the U.S. asylum system.
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Cornyn and Sen. Ted Cruz on Friday will lead a delegation of 17 GOP senators to the Texas-Mexico border, including Tillis, Collins and Graham.
Also on Friday, Rep. Joaquin Castro (D-Texas) will lead a delegation of Democrats to visit a facility that’s holding unaccompanied children in Carrizo Springs, Texas. The planned visit is “oversight to ensure humane treatment and orderly process to unite kids with families,” Castro wrote on Twitter, extending an invitation to any member of Congress. As of Wednesday afternoon, the delegation includes six Democrats, according to Castro’s office.