Immigrant farm workers harvest broccoli on March 16, 2006, near the border town of near San Luis, south of Yuma, Arizona. The U.S. Senate rejected an immigration bill Wednesday after months of bipartisan negotiations. (Photo by David McNew/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON — Immigrant advocacy groups that opposed the bipartisan Senate deal to overhaul U.S. immigration law called for restarting policy discussions as the bill failed Wednesday in the U.S. Senate.
Several advocacy organizations opposed the deal, which was defeated in a 49-50 procedural Senate vote Wednesday after all but four Republicans declined to support it. Immigration advocates said the bill would have made unacceptable changes to the asylum system.
But those groups say there is still an opportunity to pursue an immigration overhaul, something Congress hasn’t done in nearly 40 years.
“This bill may be dead, but this issue (of immigration) is going to keep coming back because of the politics,” said Michele Garnett McKenzie, the deputy director for Advocates for Human Rights, a group based in Minnesota.
The deal, which a bipartisan trio of senators hashed out with the White House over four months, fell flat with Senate Republicans within days of its introduction.
Advocates criticized deal
The bill’s failure was expected – and sought by – some immigration advocacy groups and Latino lawmakers, who criticized the White House and their fellow Democrats for giving up too much in negotiations.
Advocates said the bill included Trump-era policies and made concessions to asylum law.
“Senate leadership and the Biden administration are cowering to MAGA Republicans who are using immigrants as political pawns to grow their right-wing base,” Juliana Macedo do Nascimento, the deputy director of federal advocacy of United We Dream, said in a statement.
“As Democrats, we cannot accept Trump-era policies that hurt people, hurt our economy, and hurt the asylum process,” said Texas Rep. Greg Casar, a Democrat who is a member of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus.
Casey Swegman, director of public policy at the Tahirih Justice Center in Falls Church, Virginia, said she was not surprised by the fate of the immigration deal.
She pointed to how the Congressional Hispanic Caucus was left out of talks, along with senators who had “a long history of working in good faith on compromise immigration reform.”
The three senators who brokered the deal were Sens. James Lankford, a Republican from Oklahoma, Chris Murphy, a Democrat from Connecticut and Kyrsten Sinema, an independent from Arizona.
“To be honest, advocates had very little hope that what came out of those negotiations would be any kind of starting point for us in terms of thinking about what is really needed to improve our immigration system, which we all accept needs work,” Swegman said.
The Tahirih Justice Center helps immigrants facing gender-based violence, which is why Swegman said the proposed changes to the credible fear standard in screenings for asylum seekers were so concerning.
“It is already very difficult for an asylum seeker who is pursuing a gender-based violence claim to gain asylum, even with a valid claim,” she said.
The proposal to raise the bar for a credible fear asylum screening from a “significant possibility” to a “reasonable possibility” is a higher bar that could mean “life or death for the people we are serving,” she said.
“When we think about the raising of this fear standard, while it can sound like splitting hairs to some people, it really is like slamming the door in the face for those with valid asylum claims that will not be given a chance or opportunity to make those claims,” she said.
Swegman said that the immigration deal did not reflect the reality at the southern border.
“It refuses to acknowledge the reality that we are living in a world now with increased conflict, increased instability and increased migration,” she said. “And what we see in this package are proposals that seem to deny that reality.”
McKenzie, with Advocates for Human Rights, said the U.S. policy of pouring money into enforcement doesn’t stem migration, it just makes it more dangerous.
“This has been 40 to 50 years of the same strategy of trying to mythically seal the border and enforce our way out and expel our way out of a very human condition, which is people move,” she said.
While many immigration advocacy groups voiced their opposition to the immigration deal in the Senate, others acknowledged that divided government, with Democrats in control of the Senate and Republicans holding a House majority, required compromise.
“Only Congress can change the law and in the current situation that means bipartisanship, that’s the only way that anything changes,” said Matthew Soerens, the vice president of advocacy and policy for World Relief, a Christian humanitarian organization based in Baltimore.
The difficulty of passing an immigration policy bill was apparent this week as Senate Republicans followed the lead of their House colleagues and the party’s presidential front-runner, former President Donald Trump, and opposed the deal.
Trump has made fears about immigration at the southern border his central campaign message. House Speaker Mike Johnson and Majority Leader Steve Scalise, both Republicans of Louisiana, said soon after the bill text was released that they would not allow a vote on the Senate proposal.
As an unprecedented number of migrants have arrived at the southern border, the issue has driven increased enmity among Republicans and Democrats.
Most recently, House Republicans failed Tuesday to pass a resolution to impeach U.S. Department of Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas over policy disputes.
After months of Senate Republicans insisting on tying together an immigration policy bill with a funding bill to provide aid and humanitarian assistance for Ukraine, Israel and Indo-Pacific partners, Senate leaders dropped the immigration provisions Wednesday following a failed vote on the full package.
That means Congress will take no immediate action to address the largest number of migrant encounters at the U.S.-Mexico border in 20 years.
Needing a miracle
But Congress should not abandon the idea, Soerens said, adding there were some aspects of the immigration deal that he was pleased to see.
He cited the bill’s increase in visas for families and employment and a provision to create a pathway to residency for Afghan nationals who worked and helped the U.S. government, before Afghanistan fell to the Taliban following the U.S. withdrawal in 2021.
But he noted that the bill fell short in other areas, such as the lack of a pathway to citizenship for more than 800,000 people with Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals status. Those DACA recipients are often referred to as “Dreamers,” after the DREAM Act that Congress failed to pass in 2010.
President Joe Biden also expressed disappointment that the bill didn’t address Dreamers.
“One thing I am disappointed in we didn’t get done in the Senate’s piece was … the Dreamers,” Biden said Monday. “It’s ridiculous.”
Soerens said that he believes that most Americans want Congress to come together to fix the immigration system.
“I’m frustrated that the proposal was shut down so quickly,” he said.
He added that, as a Christian, he believes in miracles and acknowledged that it would take a miracle for Congress to pass immigration reform.
“We believe in resurrection,” Soerens said. “So this has been declared dead a few times, but we’re going to keep working on it.”
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