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Opinion Mitt Romney’s lonely warning to the GOP should prompt action now

Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah). (Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images)

By all indications, House Republicans will spend the next two years serving the people by examining every aspect of Hunter Biden’s private life and sabotaging efforts to hold Donald Trump accountable for inciting a violent insurrection. One Republican who is warning his party to correct course and focus on big national challenges is Sen. Mitt Romney of Utah.

“The American people want us to tackle some of the big challenges we have — immigration, inflation,” Romney told the Bulwark. By contrast, he suggested, MAGA obsessions might keep alienating the independents who handed Republicans their terrible 2022 showing, ripping those preoccupations as a “waste of time.”

You’re in luck, Senator Romney. You and other like-minded GOP colleagues have a big opening right now to demonstrate your seriousness of purpose — by supporting an emerging compromise on immigration reform that would address numerous significant problems all at once.

A big question is whether 10 GOP senators will support reforms being negotiated by Sens. Thom Tillis (R-N.C.) and Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.). The compromise would create a path to citizenship for 2 million “dreamers” brought here as children and invest a lot of money to speed the processing of the asylum seekers overwhelming infrastructure at the southern border.

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Right now, negotiators are discussing including $25 billion to $40 billion in funds for border security and other border-related reforms, sources familiar with the talks tell me. Will Republican senators really forgo this opportunity?

To see why they shouldn’t, consider a newly relevant episode from the last presidency. In 2018, a bipartisan group of lawmakers offered President Donald Trump a deal that included $25 billion for his border wall and a path to citizenship for 1.8 million dreamers.

Trump rejected it. He did so under pressure from hard-liners who despised the thought that people brought to the United States as children — through no fault of their own — should gain citizenship after growing up in this country with little connection to their countries of birth.

With Trump raging from the sidelines, 10 GOP senators can now back a framework that should be seen as an even better one, from their perspective. Unlike the previous deal, which would have dumped billions on a mostly symbolic border wall, the new one would more directly address genuine problems at the border.

One of the Tillis-Sinema framework’s most fundamental goals is to reduce the incentives for the very type of migration that Republicans rail about. Conservatives often claim that many migrants seek asylum mainly to be released into the interior while awaiting hearings, and then disappear.

To address this, the new framework would spend large sums on new processing centers. Asylum seekers would be detained at the outset while benefiting from increased legal representation and being subject to quicker processing.

Those resources would also facilitate fast expulsion of those who fail initial screenings determining whether they have “credible fear” of persecution if returned to home countries. While this system is built out, the government would retain for at least a year the power to expel migrants — similar to the authority regarding covid under the federal Title 42 health rule — without letting them apply for asylum at all.

If asylum seekers expect rapid expulsion after failing to pass the initial hurdle, drafters hope, it would reduce the incentive to seek asylum primarily to get released into the United States.

The framework also invests in immigration courts to compress the wait time for final hearings, and in improved systems for tracking the migrants awaiting them. This, too, could discourage seeking asylum just to disappear into the interior.

The $25 billion to $40 billion in border funds would be used to expand and reform the asylum-processing system, but it would also be invested in more border patrol workers, higher pay for them and various new security technologies, according to sources familiar with the talks.

As Tillis told Semafor, lawmakers who fear the border will be overwhelmed by increased migrant flows next year should be especially supportive. The compromise could lead to better management of migrant flows while honoring core U.S. international and human rights commitments. And many non-MAGA Republicans seem to want to protect the dreamers.

This is something Romney could lead on. He represents a type: At least 10 GOP senators are retiring, or are not beholden to the party’s MAGA wing, or don’t reflexively oppose immigration compromises.

Some progressives might balk at the framework’s more stringent border-security features. But Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) appears onboard. He told reporters this week that he welcomes talks over these reforms as something “we’d very much like to get done." Advocates hope he’ll try to attach them to some kind of end-of-year measure.

This can get done only in the lame-duck session. A GOP-controlled House will never agree to it. Romney’s criticism of House GOP preoccupations with MAGA confirms he knows this. If it doesn’t get done now, the unacceptable status quo will continue far into the future, with an immense, ongoing human toll.