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This bipartisan immigration bill could be the Senate’s last best hope

It’s a last-minute compromise that the White House is doing “everything in our power” to kill.

Senate Continues Debate As Government Shutdown Enters Third Day Drew Angerer/Getty Images

As the Senate tees up Thursday to vote on four immigration proposals, the plan that might have the best hope of passage is one that was introduced late Wednesday night.

The proposal, co-sponsored by Sen. Mike Rounds (R-SD) and Sen. Angus King (I-ME), along with a bunch of other senators in the unofficial “Common Sense Coalition,” is the product of bipartisan talks that began after January’s government shutdown. It’s a fairly dovish bill. The White House hates it; it’s already issued a statement threatening a veto. Surprisingly, some progressive groups strongly dislike it, too.

By the time the proposal was actually released, a Politico headline already said it was on “life support.” It’s going to be very hard for any immigration bill the White House opposes to pass the Senate — and it’s going to be even harder for the House to take it up.

But as the Senate’s “full and open debate” on immigration has been whittled down to a series of four votes over a single day, it’s not like other bills have a better chance of passing either. The new Rounds plan could be the Senate’s best chance.

What the bill would do

  • Provide a pathway to citizenship for DREAMers. The bill would allow immigrants who entered the US before they turned 18 (and before June 15, 2012), and who were younger than 39 as of June 15, 2012, to apply for legal status. That’s a broader population than the 690,000 young undocumented immigrants protected under the Deferred Action for Child Arrivals (DACA) program (which only covered immigrants who entered the US before they were 16, and who were younger than 31); press reports estimated the eligible population at 1.8 million immigrants, though it’s almost certain that not all of those would apply and be accepted. Immigrants would be ineligible if they had certain criminal convictions and would have to pay back taxes. They’d be eligible for citizenship in as little as 12 years, though even after becoming citizens, they wouldn’t be able to sponsor their parents (though the bill wouldn’t bar their parents from getting some other form of legal status).
  • Prevent green card holders from sponsoring their adult children to immigrate to the US. The bill would get rid of the F-2B category of family-based visas, which are used for the unmarried adult children of green card holders. (An estimated 26,266 of those visas go out every year.) People with pending applications for those visas could still get them. After they were processed, the 26,266 annual visas would instead go to spouses and minor children of green card holders. But immigrants would still be able to sponsor their adult children to immigrate once they became US citizens.
  • $25 billion for the wall and other stuff at the border. The bill would appropriate $25 billion to the Department of Homeland Security for border infrastructure (including “the construction of physical barriers”) and technology. That money would be doled out at the rate of $2.5 billion a year for the next 10 years — with specific instructions for how it should be spent in 2018. It would require DHS to submit detailed plans to Congress of how it planned to spend the money each year, and to meet 75 percent of the goals it set each year in order to get the next year’s money.
  • Tells ICE not to focus on unauthorized immigrants living in the US without criminal records. The bill would codify “enforcement priorities” for the Department of Homeland Security (including Immigration and Customs Enforcement). It would tell agents to focus on immigrants convicted of felonies, and those who enter the US after January 1, 2018. This would be the first time since the establishment of ICE as an independent agency in 2003 that a law would dictate whom agents should focus on, and would put much stricter restrictions on ICE than the ones agents chafed under during the Obama administration (and which Trump famously removed while in office). It wouldn’t prohibit ICE from deporting unauthorized immigrants without criminal records who’ve lived in the US for a while, but it would, at least in theory, push those immigrants way down on the enforcement agenda.

This bill is more dovish than a bill the right has already rejected — but some on the left are going after it too

Of the four proposals Congress is set to vote on Thursday, the Rounds proposal is the middle path. It’s slightly more hawkish than a bill from Sens. John McCain (R-AZ) and Chris Coons (D-DE), which doesn’t put any restrictions on future legal immigration — but substantially more dovish than the bill from Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-IA) based on the White House’s immigration framework, which would drastically cut legal immigration and make substantial policy changes in the border and interior of the US.

In the broader context of bills that have been proposed as “DACA fixes,” though, the Rounds bill is surprisingly dovish. It’s to the left of the deal worked out by Sens. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) and Dick Durbin (D-IL) in January — the one that President Trump famously rejected because it was too permissive of immigrants from “shithole countries.”

Predictably, then, the right hates it. And so does the White House.

Trump’s Department of Homeland Security sent out a press release Thursday morning saying that the proposal “ignores the lessons of 9/11.” (The press release substantially mischaracterizes the bill. It says that legalized immigrants would sponsor more than 8 million family members for legal status, which is mathematically inconceivable: Legalized immigrants couldn’t sponsor their parents, and most of their siblings are either US citizens or would themselves be eligible for legalization.)

Perhaps less predictably, some groups on the left flank of the immigrant rights movement have also come out strongly against the bill. The northeastern activist group Make the Road put out a statement calling the Rounds proposal a “mass deportation” bill — despite the fact that it attempts to limit ICE’s efforts under Trump to deport unauthorized immigrants living in the US without criminal records, activists are worried that the provision could unintentionally reduce the ability of future Democratic presidents to use their discretion to shield immigrants from enforcement. Democrats who are supportive of the bill have said that some of their colleagues are on the fence.

The last best chance?

The bill was introduced with eight Republican co-sponsors — meaning that it would need only three more Republican votes to hit the 60-vote threshold if all Democrats supported it. But without knowing how many Democrats are wavering on the bill, it’s hard to guess how likely that is. And with the White House whipping so hard against Rounds’s proposal, getting any more Republicans might be tough.

The hope from the bills’ sponsors and supporters is that any senator who actually wants to pass a bill to address the status of DACA recipients before the March 5 deadline originally set by Trump will realize that the Rounds proposal has the best chance of passing.

But some on the left are already insisting that Democrats will get an even better deal if they hold out longer. And because the Rounds proposal will be voted on before the Grassley bill on Thursday, some Republicans may hope that the Rounds bill will fail and conservative Democrats will reconcile themselves to a much more hawkish bill just to get something passed.

Correction: This article originally miscounted the number of Republican votes needed to pass a bill. We apologize for our arithmetic.

Update: This article has been updated to reflect a change to the proposal announced on Thursday afternoon: under the current proposal, DHS will be instructed to focus on unauthorized immigrants who entered after January 1, 2018, not June 30, 2018.