Congress appears no closer to passing a bill to protect hundreds of thousands of undocumented immigrants brought to the country as children, ahead of a court hearing Thursday in litigation that threatens a program shielding “Dreamers” from deportation.
A comprehensive immigration proposal put forth last week by Florida Republican Rep. Maria Elvira Salazar and Texas Democratic Rep. Veronica Escobar includes a path to citizenship for Dreamers, along with provisions to heighten border security and retool the asylum system.
Several senators signaled interest in working to build on the proposal, but progress in the chamber appeared sluggish, and Republicans were pessimistic the bill could gain traction on either side of the Capitol.
Sen. Chris Coons of Delaware, who attended a bipartisan border trip earlier this year, said at a Judiciary Committee hearing Wednesday on farmworker visas that he was “pleased to see” Salazar and Escobar’s proposal. He said the proposed bill is “clearly a work in progress, but it’s a start.”
“It’s clear to me that the ball is now in our court in the Senate to answer a simple question: What can we find 60 votes to do,” Coons said at the hearing, referring to the 60-vote threshold needed in the chamber for most bills to move forward.
“I’m committed to working with my colleagues and to find a path forward, and I hope they will join me in doing so.”
Judiciary Chair Richard J. Durbin of Illinois, a longtime leader of legislative efforts to protect Dreamers, said in an interview Wednesday he was “very interested” in the bill, and that he had spoken to Escobar and the two are “on the same track.”
Yet Durbin and several other senators who have led bipartisan immigration talks in the past also said they had yet to read the bill, more than a week after it was publicly introduced.
Sen. Charles E. Grassley of Iowa, the top Republican on the Judiciary Committee, which oversees immigration matters, said his knowledge of the House proposal comes only from news reports and that he is not currently involved in bipartisan discussions.
California Democratic Sen. Alex Padilla, who leads the committee’s immigration panel, said he is still reviewing the proposal. He added that “we’re focused on the debt ceiling right now,” referring to current negotiations to avoid a federal default.
And several Republican senators threw cold water on the bill’s chances of moving in the chamber at all.
Texas Sen. John Cornyn, the top Republican on the immigration subcommittee, said during the hearing he is “skeptical” that Congress could pass an immigration overhaul bill.
“I am not optimistic that we are somehow, all of a sudden, going to have an epiphany and figure out how to do comprehensive immigration reform,” Cornyn said.
Cornyn said later in an interview that while he appreciates Salazar and Escobar’s “optimism,” he does not “believe that bill has any chance of being passed by the House of Representatives.”
Instead, Cornyn said he’d prefer to build off of an earlier Republican-led border security package that passed the House in May with no Democratic votes, and Escobar and Salazar’s proposals “certainly could be part of that discussion.”
Oklahoma Republican Sen. James Lankford also indicated that he would rather work with the Republican-led border security bill.
“There’s a big difference between a passed bill and a proposed bill,” Lankford said in an interview.
Coons, in a brief interview Wednesday after the hearing, acknowledged the challenges in making any headway on immigration discussions in his chamber.
“Getting focus on this has been a challenge, and finding compromise has been elusive. But I really appreciate and respect Representatives Salazar and Escobar given how different their political philosophies are, for the amount of time they invested in crafting a significant bill. And I really hope it gets the response,” Coons said. “It deserves a shot.”
Court hearing ahead
In the meantime, the Biden administration is scheduled to be back in court on Thursday to defend the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program against a legal challenge by the state of Texas and other Republican-led states.
The program, initially issued in 2012 under the Obama administration, offers deportation relief and work authorization to more than 600,000 undocumented immigrants who came to the U.S. in June 2007 or earlier when they were younger than 16.
Judge Andrew Hanen of the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Texas will hear arguments about whether the latest version of the DACA policy is legal, after the administration put the program through the formal regulatory process in an effort to strengthen it against court challenges.
Hanen is widely expected to rule against the program sometime after Thursday’s hearing, but to keep it in place for current recipients while appeals continue.
The Texas federal judge had already ruled that the Department of Homeland Security does not have the authority to provide protections under an earlier version of the DACA program.
A federal appeals court backed the decision, but also sent the lawsuit back to Hanen to consider the administration’s latest final rule issued in August.
Thomas A. Saenz, president and general counsel of the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, which is representing a group of DACA recipients who joined the litigation to defend the program, told reporters on Tuesday that the case “is not a foregone conclusion.”
MALDEF and the Justice Department have argued that the government has the authority to implement the DACA program, as well as that the Republican-led states lack the authority to challenge it in court.
Saenz also expressed hope that a future adverse ruling against the program could spark congressional action. He noted that even Texas, which challenged DACA, had asked the judge to wind it down over several years rather than to end it immediately.
This request from Texas is “a plea for Congress to get its act together,” Saenz said.
“Unfortunately Congress has not moved successfully to address the issue,” he said. “So, past practice suggests not to be too optimistic.”