Senate Republicans can shut door on immigration reform with filibuster

U.S. & World

Biden's immigration reform bill faces uphill climb in Upper House; influential GOP senators already labeled proposal a "non-starter"

Sen. Mike Crapo (R-ID), Sen. John Cornyn (R-TX), Sen. Josh Hawley (R-MO) and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) leave McConnell’s office and walk to the Senate chamber for impeachment proceedings at the U.S. Capitol on January 16, 2020 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

EL PASO, Texas (Border Report) – It’s called a filibuster, and it’s the reason Senate Republicans may get the final say on whether 11 million unauthorized immigrants receive legal status or not.

“It is the ability to not end debate on a bill. In order to stop a filibuster, you must have 60 votes for cloture. That ends debate and calls for a vote under parliamentary procedure,” said Charles Boehmer, professor and chair of the Political Science Department at the University of Texas at El Paso.

Republicans are likely to use the maneuver when President Joe Biden’s immigration reform bill reaches the Senate. With only 50 Democrats in the Senate, that means 10 Republicans must call for cloture or the bill likely is dead, and so are the dreams of millions who aspire to a green card and eventual U.S. citizenship.

Biden’s sweeping immigration proposal seeks to integrate into the formal economy millions of unauthorized workers and their dependents physically present in the United States. It calls for background checks and offers a five-year path to legal residence and a further three-year path to citizenship.

Protesters stand at an intersection on June 21, 2020 in St. Paul, Minnesota. Protesters rallied in front of the St. Paul Capitol to demand reform at the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency (ICE). (Photo by Brandon Bell/Getty Images)

Almost three-quarters of the American public support legal status for unauthorized immigrant, according to a June 2020 Pew Research Center poll. But whereas support is overwhelming among Democrats (91%), only a slight majority of the Republican-leaning public (54%) approve of the idea.

And the bill doesn’t just offer legal status but has an eight-year path to full U.S. citizenship and voting privileges.

Charles Boehmer

“It’s the path to citizenship that will be the most contentious part” of the Biden proposal, Boehmer said. “I would bet against this passing through the Senate right now in part because of citizenship being a rather contentious aspect. The idea of people cutting in line is unfair to some. […] This has been a long-running, divisive issue and why there hasn’t been significant immigration reform since the Reagan administration.”

Already, Sen. Charles E. Grassley, R-Iowa, has blasted the immigration proposal as a “mass amnesty” that would encourage more unauthorized migration. U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Florida, called it a “non-starter” devoid of complimentary border security components.

And then, there’s the specter of Donald Trump.

The specter of Donald Trump

While many Republicans in the past have favored legalization for the sake of helping the business community, former President Trump’s scorching anti-immigrant discourse empowered those in the GOP who oppose reforms in the law, Boehmer said.

“It’ll be a test to see if that faction will be as strong as it was during the Trump administration. It’s expected that faction has become drastically weaker just because President Trump is no longer president […] not all Republicans agree to that kind of staunch anti-immigration policy,” he said.

But Trump remains a haunt in more ways than one. He could decide to continue ideologically influencing the party or even supporting challengers to moderate Republicans.

Biden’s immigration reform bill “is exactly the kind of issue we would expect President Trump, even being out of office, to have a voice in,” Boehmer said. “That’s the danger for the Republican Party. It’s not going to be a welcome vote for them.”

That would leave Biden and the Democrats with limited options. They could decide to scale back the bill to ensure passage of permanent legal status for the “Dreamers,” which many Republicans supported but weren’t too vocal about during the Trump administration. “Dreamers” are those who were brought into the country illegally when they were children, many of whom have received reprieve from deportation and temporary work permits through the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrival (DACA) program.

Or they could opt for the “nuclear option” of doing away with the filibuster, Boehmer said.

“There’s a lot of debate whether the Democrats should do this or not and whether it’ good for either party down the road. It’s one of the few tools that the majority party in the Senate has at its disposal […] that the Founding Fathers intended to induce more cooperation, more negotiation,” he said. “So, the majority party today has to think about the long run, about being less influential, disenfranchised in the future.”

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