Biden win revives immigration talk

President-elect Joe Biden’s victory is reviving the hunt for one of Washington’s biggest white whales: immigration reform. 

Talk of a potential agreement under Biden comes as Congress has tried and failed in recent years to clinch a deal related to the estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants in the United States. 

GOP senators pointed to immigration as one area of potential compromise under a government likely to be divided next year. 

“I think that would be a good thing to do,” Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) said about the potential to do immigration next year.

“The challenge is you’ve got to get the votes, but that to me is one of my biggest disappointments in my time in the Senate, our inability to get that done,” Cornyn said, adding that he would “try to be part of that effort” if the topic comes back up.    

Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) during a recent call with reporters said there was room for deals between Republicans and Biden on several issues, and “there may be some things we can do on immigration. You know, you got the Dreamers hanging out there.” 

“I will be willing to work with the Biden administration, if he wins — and I’m not conceding that he will — in ways to make the country stronger,” Graham said, adding that Biden would have to decide if he wants to cut deals with Republicans.

Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), who will chair the Judiciary Committee if Republicans keep control of the Senate, didn’t rule out action on immigration but warned it would depend on the parameters, which he said would need to be “somewhere in between” extremes on both sides. 

“It’s kind of a case of the extreme points of view — like people who think we can load up 12 million people and get them out of the country; if they want to do that, they can’t be a part of it. And for the people who want people to be citizens yesterday, they can’t be a part of it,” Grassley said. 

The shift to a Biden administration comes after President Trump took a hard line on both illegal and legal immigration during the past four years, waging a years-long fight over the border wall, trying to end the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, overhauling U.S. asylum policy and enacting a “zero tolerance” strategy that has left, according to court documents last month, at least 545 immigrant children yet to be reunited with their parents after the government separated them.

The Senate in 2018 was close to an agreement that would have provided $25 billion for border security in exchange for a path to citizenship for 1.8 million undocumented immigrants who came to the country as children, but the White House and the Department of Homeland Security helped tank it. 

The House passed the DREAM Act in 2019, but the bill went nowhere in a GOP-controlled Senate. 

If Democrats had been swept into the Senate majority, immigration reform was expected to be on their to-do list as the party considered ending the legislative filibuster.

Now, even if Democrats are able to force a 50-50 tie by flipping two Georgia seats in runoff elections in January, they would be well short of the 60 votes needed to pass a deal.

The uphill battle in Congress has immigration reform advocates urging Biden to make changes to the system through executive action, including rolling back Trump orders. 

Biden is expected to quickly revive the DACA program, end the Trump administration’s so-called Muslim ban and end construction on the U.S.-Mexico border wall. He is reportedly eyeing a freeze on deportations to give his administration time to issue new guidance for immigration agents. Biden also announced late last week that he would dramatically increase the refugee cap.

Ron Klain, Biden’s incoming chief of staff, reiterated that addressing children brought into the country illegally as children would be one of the first actions taken by a Biden administration, saying it would be an action taken care of on Day One. 

But immigration reform advocates are warning they will pressure Congress to take legislative action on immigration reform starting next year and won’t just settle for executive actions. 

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Jordain Carney