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Opinion Finally, a bipartisan deal to help the ‘dreamers’ is within reach

Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.) speaks during a news conference after the Senate passed the Respect for Marriage Act at the Capitol on Nov. 29. (Elizabeth Frantz for The Washington Post)

For three straight election cycles, running as the party of “border security” has largely failed for the GOP. Though Republicans dumped enormous resources into painting migrants in the most lurid and threatening terms imaginable, Democrats won the House in 2018, ousted Donald Trump from the White House in 2020 and dramatically outperformed expectations in 2022.

Now, Republicans have a chance to do something new. Rather than treating the southern border as a blank screen upon which to project their storehouse of demagoguery, they can support an emerging compromise with an actual shot at achieving a more orderly border.

Sens. Thom Tillis (R-N.C.) and Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.) have reached an agreement on a draft framework of immigration reform compromises, sources familiar with the situation tell me. They involve issues such as the fate of “dreamers” brought here as children and the processing of asylum seekers at the southern border. Will the 10 Republican senators necessary to overcome a filibuster go along?

A white paper laying out this Tillis-Sinema blueprint is circulating on Capitol Hill, congressional aides and advocates plugged into the talks tell me. Though the details are in flux, here’s a partial list of the major items it contains:

  • Some form of path to citizenship for 2 million dreamers.
  • A large boost in resources to speed up the processing of asylum seekers, including new processing centers and more asylum officers and judges.
  • More resources to expedite the removal of migrants who don’t qualify for asylum.
  • A continuation of the Title 42 covid-health-rule restriction on migrants applying for asylum, until the new processing centers are operational, with the aim of a one-year cutoff.
  • More funding for border officers.

The idea behind this compromise is this: It gives Democrats protection for 2 million dreamers and strengthened defenses of the due process rights of some migrants. It gives Republicans faster removal from the country of migrants who fail to qualify for asylum, a continued restriction on applications for the next year and more border security.

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The boost in resources would hopefully reduce the strain at the border by moving migrants through the asylum application process more quickly. The processing facilities would be temporary detention centers, but additional lawyers would be present, enabling more robust representation.

On the flip side, if migrants fail the initial interview determining whether they have a “credible fear” of persecution if returned to their home countries, they’d be removed much more quickly. A “Title 42” health rationale, which is indefensible as a border-management tool, would be kept ostensibly to control flows while the reforms are implemented. The Government Accountability Office would have the authority to end it after one year if the processing centers are up and running.

It’s hard to say whether 10 Republican senators would back such a deal to get it past a GOP filibuster. This will become harder when former president Donald Trump and adviser Stephen Miller scream that it represents a massive betrayal by “elites,” as they undoubtedly will, and right-wing media propagandists such as Tucker Carlson amplify that toxic message to enrage the base.

If 10 GOP senators could support this, they’d be drawn from those who are retiring (Sens. Roy Blunt of Missouri and Patrick J. Toomey of Pennsylvania) or those willing to challenge the Trump wing of the party (Sens. Mitt Romney of Utah and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska).

A big question is whether these Republicans will see any advantage in genuinely trying to fix the problems at the border. They might decide that the GOP won’t get any credit even if the effort succeeds — that credit might go to President Biden — and that it’s better to retain the permanent “border crisis” as an issue.

But this is the last chance for these GOP senators to try to reach a bipartisan compromise. House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), who hopes to be the next speaker, has vowed not to pass any immigration reform legislation until he deems the border secured, which will never, ever happen. By backing this, retiring GOP senators could plausibly argue that they helped move the party on from Trump and add bipartisan reform on a brutal national problem to their legacy.

On the other side, however, it’s not clear whether 50 Democratic senators would support such a compromise. The continuation of Title 42, which has been a human rights disaster, and the beefed up removal process might make it a nonstarter among progressives in both chambers.

“The devil is in the details,” Robyn Barnard, a lawyer for Human Rights First, told me. “We believe Congress should protect dreamers,” she said, but noted that it’s “unconscionable” to “trade the lives of one immigrant group for another.”

Still, the pull on Democrats of reaching a bipartisan deal might be strong. “There are bitter pills in this compromise,” longtime immigration advocate Frank Sharry told me. “But the status quo is clearly unacceptable. If they get the details right, this would be a bipartisan breakthrough.”

Again and again over the years, the most carefully designed immigration reform compromises have imploded. If 10 GOP senators appear open to reforms that would make life more humane for more than 2 million immigrants and show Republicans that compromise on immigration is possible without the political sky falling, progressives might be hard-pressed to say no.