Can Republicans and Democrats Find a Way Forward on Immigration?

Any hope for immigration reform on undocumented Dreamers, border security or legal immigration will likely hinge on compromise, something that has eluded lawmakers for decades.

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Can Republicans and Democrats Find a Way Forward on Immigration? |

Migrants from Honduras and Cuba getting into a Border Patrol vehicle after crossing the Rio Grande into the United States in Eagle Pass, Texas, earlier this year.

WASHINGTON — A drug needle goes into a person’s arm; an adult and child walk through a graveyard; and footage of migrants walking along a sandy stretch of a border wall, in Yuma, Arizona, streams while ominous music plays in the background of this video.

It is a 40-second political ad in support of Blake Masters, the Republican candidate for Senate in Arizona, who is running against Mark Kelly, the incumbent Democrat. The ad connects fatal overdoses of fentanyl and methamphetamines to a spike in illegal migration at the southwestern border. It is one of more than 400 political ads tying immigration to drugs this election cycle, according to America’s Voice, a pro-immigration advocacy group.

And it is part of a false G.O.P. narrative that connects fatal overdoes of fentanyl to a spike in illegal migration and presents Republican immigration hard-line immigration policies as an answer to crime and the drug epidemic. Most of the fentanyl comes into the country through official ports of entry on the southwestern border, hidden in legitimate commerce.

The false narrative, which resonates with voters across the country, is just one example of how toxic the issue of immigration has become. Republicans have stepped up attacks against President Biden as weak and ineffective on immigration, making it even more difficult for the Biden administration to secure any meaningful immigration reform after the midterm elections, especially if the G.O.P. controls at least one legislative chamber.

But even if Republicans win control in Congress and want to advance their immigration policies, particularly on border security, they will have to find some compromise with Democrats to overcome the 60-vote filibuster threshold in the Senate — something that has been elusive for years, regardless of party control.

Here are some of the major immigration issues facing the Biden administration that would require striking a compromise with Republicans for any legislation to move forward.

ImageImmigration advocates demonstrating in front of the Capitol to support protections for DACA recipients earlier this year.Credit…Drew Angerer/Getty Images

The Obama-era program, known as the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, protects hundreds of thousands of immigrants who came to the country as children and have grown up in the United States. Court challenges against the policy have been successful and appeals have largely been exhausted, leaving the fate of these immigrants — many of whom hold jobs in sectors that are already struggling to find workers, such as agriculture and manufacturing — in the hands of Congress.

If Congress is unable to come to an agreement to enshrine the policy in law, and a judge stops allowing current participants, known as “Dreamers,” to renew their status, about 1,000 of them will lose the ability to work every business day over a two-year period, said Todd Schulte, president of, an immigration reform advocacy group that draws support from the tech industry.

“This would cause terrible, unneeded human and economic hardship for millions of individuals,” Mr. Schulte said in a recent letter to Democrats, referring to the Dreamers, others who would be eligible for the benefit and their family members. He said the results of so many forced out of the work force “would be extremely harmful” for the country’s economy.

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The top Republican in the House, Representative Kevin McCarthy of California, who is in line for the speaker role, has said that if the G.O.P. wins back control, striking a deal to protect DACA recipients in exchange for border security is a non-starter. But significant job losses in Republican districts among DACA recipients could force the Republicans’ hands if their employers put pressure on their elected officials to find a solution.

There has been and continues to be bipartisan support to create a pathway to citizenship for the Dreamers, according to a recent poll commissioned by But previous efforts have failed without enough Republican support.

“It’s put up or shut up time” for Republicans if they actually want to do something on border security, Mr. Schulte said in an interview with The New York Times.

Democrats have already shown that they are open to some kind of compromise measure.

ImageA Border Patrol agent detaining migrants who crossed the border near Yuma, Ariz.Credit…John Moore/Getty Images

For Republicans, when it comes to immigration, border security is the top priority.

During Mr. Biden’s time in office, there has been a record-breaking spike in illegal migration at the southwestern border, part of a global trend exacerbated by the coronavirus pandemic.

Many migrants are fleeing violence and poverty with the hope that they will find work or asylum in the United States. They are coming across the southwest border illegally, because there are not enough legal pathways for them to come to the United States. Limits on visas were set based on the U.S. economy in the 1990s and have largely remained the same, even though the country’s economy has grown more than twice as large since then.

Even so, Republicans blame the Biden administration. House Republicans have threatened to impeach the Homeland Security secretary, Alejandro N. Mayorkas, should they retake the majority, blaming him for the extraordinary number of illegal border crossings. They have also threatened to impeach the attorney general, among other officials.

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For Republicans, improving border security starts with restoring former President Donald J. Trump’s restrictive immigration measures. Senator Rick Scott of Florida, the chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, said the first step is completing Mr. Trump’s border wall, a pricey project that Mr. Biden paused when he took office. Fights over the wall also led to a government shutdown in 2018. Democrats say the wall is ineffective and sends a message that the country does not want to let anyone in.

Republicans also argue that restricting asylum and withholding welfare benefits for immigrants are two policy changes that would deter migrants from crossing the southwestern border illegally, though undocumented immigrants are not eligible for most federal public benefits.

“We have plenty of welfare recipients; we need productive citizens instead,” Mr. Scott said on his campaign website.

There may be room for movement. Legislation introduced last year by Senator John Cornyn, Republican of Texas, had the support of two Democratic senators, Maggie Hassan of New Hampshire and Krysten Sinema of Arizona, and could provide a road map for compromise. The bill calls for hiring more people in the immigration agencies to address spikes in migration and speeding the process for determining an asylum case in immigration court. That proposal did not include a pathway to citizenship for the Dreamers, and the measure has yet to advance.

So far, bills that included both border security and new pathways for legal immigration have hit dead-ends. Senator Dick Durban, Democrat of Illinois, recently reminded Republicans of a proposal in 2013 that had bipartisan support in the Senate. Mr. Durbin said if the legislation had passed, the country would not be in the current situation where there are not enough immigrants legally authorized to work in the agriculture sector.

ImageFarm workers harvesting asparagus in Firebaugh, Calif.Credit…Ryan Christopher Jones for The New York Times

Another challenge facing the Biden administration is the labor shortage across the country, which continues to worsen as the economy adds new jobs, even as fears of a recession grow. Democrats and many businesses that employ both low and high-skilled workers argue the labor shortage could be addressed through issuing work authorizations and paths to citizenship as well as expanding programs for immigrants to come work in the United States.

Many businesses argue that allowing the expiration of work authorizations for Dreamers and other immigrants in the country on a temporary status would result in significant disruptions to the work force. Businesses pushing for immigration reform have pressed Congress to pass measures providing work authorizations that could give an immediate boost to the economy, lower food prices and fill critical job openings.

Businesses, particularly in the agriculture industry, are also pushing to fix the country’s current farm labor shortages by passing new laws for immigrants to work in the agriculture work force.

The House last year approved measures that would give about four million immigrants currently in the United States without documentation or with expiring permissions a path to citizenship. But the bills died without enough support in the Senate.

While Democrats want to expand legal immigration, Republicans typically want to decrease it. Many Republicans see adding more paths to citizenship for immigrants already in the country on an expired or temporary status as a form of amnesty. They also argue that immigrants take jobs away from Americans.

ImageMigrants seeking asylum wait to be processed by Border Patrol agents along a section of border wall near Yuma, Ariz.Credit…John Moore/Getty Images

For years, Republicans have largely owned the narrative on immigration, which is mostly focused on illegal immigrants and border crossings. In this election cycle, Republicans outspent Democrats on immigration-related ads on streaming services and traditional television nearly 15 to 1 — with $119.4 million compared to Democrats’ $8.1 million, according to BPI, a communications and marketing agency that tracks this data.

Democrats see little political advantage in talking about immigration during the campaign. But letting Republicans fill that void means the G.O.P. message is often the only narrative Americans hear about immigration.

In general, border and immigration policy are two of Mr. Biden’s least favorite issues to discuss, his staff has said, since it is an enormous challenge with no clear, quick solution. And there has been disagreement within the Biden administration over how to approach the border, with some aides supporting some of the restrictive policies of the last administration, according to two people familiar with the discussions.

But immigration advocates say if Mr. Biden is serious about protecting Dreamers and pursuing other immigration reforms, Democrats must start reclaiming the narrative on immigration with a positive message that resonates with voters.

“They’d better get on the messaging train,” said Beatriz Lopez, the chief political and communications officer with the advocacy group, Immigration Hub.

There are brighter messages on immigration for Democrats to talk about, Ms. Lopez said. Her organization has found that voters in battleground states largely agree on protecting the Dreamers. She said they also approve of what the Biden administration has done to reunite immigrant families who were separated during the Trump administration. And voters support efforts to crack down on international drug cartels.

Customs and Border Protection, for example, seized 14,700 pounds of fentanyl between October of last year and the end of September, which is more than five times the amount in 2019. About 80 percent of the fentanyl seized by the agency last year was done at ports of entry on the southwestern border.

“Democrats have an opportunity to lean in,” said Vanessa Cárdenas, executive director of America’s Voice, a pro-immigration group. “Talk about the fact that we can do big things, and get the ball rolling on affirmative positive immigration action, versus just playing into the right and talking about enforcement.”

Jeanna Smialek and Emily Cochrane contributed reporting.


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