Politics The Senate just opened up a rare free-for-all debate on immigration — here's who's winning so far

  • Published: , Refreshed:

The Senate launched into a wild week of immigration debate on Monday evening. Lawmakers will compete to see which proposal can get to 60 votes first.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and Minority Leader Chuck Schumer. play

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and Minority Leader Chuck Schumer.

(Associated Press/J. Scott Applewhite)

  • The Senate launched into a wild week of debate on immigration on Monday evening.
  • Lawmakers will compete to see which proposal can get to 60 votes first.
  • Senators will attempt to balance protection for young unauthorized immigrants known as Dreamers with President Donald Trump's calls for a border wall and increased border security.


After months of inaction and bickering over immigration, the Senate launched into an open debate on the issue on Monday evening — a remarkable move that allows senators to offer up a variety of proposals.

"Whoever gets to 60 votes wins," Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell told reporters last week.

Lawmakers will duke it out to address the fate of young unauthorized immigrants known as Dreamers, border security, and, potentially, the entire US immigration system.

The freewheeling process is expected to stretch throughout the week — and the only major agreement senators have reached so far has been to kick off the debate.

On Monday night, the chamber voted 97-1 to use an unrelated bill as a "shell" to ultimately build an immigration proposal. The lone holdout was Republican Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas.

High stakes and a historic opportunity

Dreamers, a nickname for the young unauthorized immigrants who came to the US as children and are protected from deportation under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, hug relatives at the US-Mexico border on December 10. play

Dreamers, a nickname for the young unauthorized immigrants who came to the US as children and are protected from deportation under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, hug relatives at the US-Mexico border on December 10.

(Thomson Reuters)

The stakes for any bill are high. Hanging in the balance is the fate of Dreamers, a nickname for the about 700,000 unauthorized immigrants who came to the US as children and are temporarily protected from deportation under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program.

In September, the Trump administration began phasing out DACA, setting its termination for March 5.

That deadline that blurred slightly in January when a federal judge ordered the Trump administration to resume processing renewal applications for DACA recipients.

Though the Trump administration is complying with the court order, it also appealed the ruling to a federal appeals court and the Supreme Court. It's unclear how long the order will remain in place.

If Congress manages to pass something resolving the fate of Dreamers, it would be a historic milestone.

The latest major effort to overhaul the US immigration system was in 2013, when the Senate passed the so-called Gang of Eight immigration bill with a 68-vote margin but the House did not take it up.

'Keep it simple'

Republican Sens. Chuck Grassley, Tom Cotton, Joni Ernst, David Perdue, and Thom Tillis. play

Republican Sens. Chuck Grassley, Tom Cotton, Joni Ernst, David Perdue, and Thom Tillis.

(Associated Press/Alex Brandon)

It's unclear which of the lawmakers' proposals will fare the best, but one Republican plan that has McConnell's backing is gaining steam.

That bill, known as the Secure and Succeed Act, closely mirrors President Donald Trump's wishes by extending protections for Dreamers while fully funding a wall along the US-Mexico border and reducing legal immigration.

Republican Sen. Chuck Grassley of Iowa, the lead sponsor of the bill, told The Washington Post that it was "the only piece of legislation" that could make it through the House and get Trump's signature.

But that plan has next to no chance of getting necessary votes from Democrats, who oppose both Trump's border-wall proposal and slashing legal immigration.

Instead, many Democrats say the proposal with the best chance of survival is a narrow one that addresses DACA alone or paired with border-security measures short of a physical wall.

"The only way to achieve a solution to the DACA crisis is to keep it simple," The New York Times quoted Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson of Florida as saying on the Senate floor.

Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer agreed, saying on the floor that Democrats intended to support some border-security changes but not much else.

"Now is not the time nor the place to reform the entire legal immigration system," Schumer said, according to NPR. "Rather, this is the moment for a narrow bill. And every ounce of our energy is going into finding one that can pass."

Debate on Tuesday got off to a rocky start when Republicans introduced their first amendment, which included language that would punish so-called sanctuary cities, jurisdictions that limit cooperation with federal immigration authorities.

Democrats blocked the request, saying they were infuriated that Republicans would introduce an amendment into the debate that lawmakers and the president had barely discussed.

Schumer said that proposal did not "address the underlying issues of this debate, why we are here," adding, "It doesn't address the Dreamers, nor does it address border security."

'There will never be another opportunity!'

President Donald Trump. play

President Donald Trump.

(Associated Press/Evan Vucci)

But it's still unclear whether Trump will support a bill that makes it through both chambers of Congress.

Trump has insisted he will sign into law only a bill that contains his four "pillars" of immigration reform.

In addition to resolving DACA, Trump also wants Congress to fund his long-promised border wall, overhaul the family-sponsored visas that conservatives say enables "chain migration," and eliminate the diversity visa lottery, which provides as many as 50,000 visas each year to immigrants from countries with historically low rates of US immigration.

The White House recently offered up an immigration proposal that would give 1.8 million Dreamers a pathway to citizenship — far more than the number of immigrants DACA currently covers — in exchange for reduced legal immigration levels and the full $25 million in funding for the border wall.

Both Democrats and hardline conservatives have derided the plan. The latter are loath to provide what they describe as amnesty to large numbers of unauthorized immigrants.

Trump weighed in on the debate in a tweet early on Tuesday.

"Republicans want to make a deal and Democrats say they want to make a deal. Wouldn't it be great if we could finally, after so many years, solve the DACA puzzle," he tweeted. "This will be our last chance, there will never be another opportunity! March 5th."

Subscribe to the Pulselive Newsletter!