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A Bleak Outlook on Immigration Reform
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A Bleak Outlook on Immigration Reform

Divisions in Congress make major breakthroughs on the issue unlikely in 2023.

Immigrant families arrive back into Mexico after being expelled from the United States. (Photo by John Moore/Getty Images)

U.S. Customs and Border Protection reported more than 2.3 million encounters with migrants attempting to come into the U.S. during the 2022 fiscal year. That’s up 1.7 million from the previous year and around 450,000 from 2020.

The jump in numbers can be partially attributed to repeat crossings: According to CPB, recidivism rates—individuals that Border Patrol apprehended more than once—stood at 7 percent in fiscal year 2019, and jumped above 25 percent for fiscal year 2020 and 2021.

While no one denies that America’s immigration system needs a major overhaul, few expect that the crisis on America’s southern border will soon break the decadeslong logjam on immigration policy.

“My sense is you’ll have messaging bills that won’t go anywhere,” GOP Rep. Michael McCaul, who chaired the House Committee on Homeland Security for three terms, said last week. “And then you’ll have smaller bipartisan bills that may have a chance at advancing some type of border security. It’s gonna be hard to pass immigration reform without getting this thing under control.”

Consider how the House, Senate, and White House are likely to approach the issue in the coming year. 

The House

House Republicans have made clear they’re most interested in passing legislation to address migration at the southern border, but don’t expect it to go anywhere.

President Joe Biden “has got to be willing to shut down the border and all the crossings,” Rep. Andy Biggs, a member of the House Freedom Caucus, told The Dispatch. “I think ‘til he’s sincere about really wanting to do something about the southern border and having a constructive conversation, I mean, we’re not going to ever get anywhere.”

He expects immigration legislation from the House to focus on providing resources for enforcement agencies at the border and building a wall in certain places. Others agreed.

“Once we have the border secure and the Biden administration will actually secure the border, then I think we could have a broader discussion on immigration,” Rep. Carlos Gimenez, a Florida Republican, said. “The first deal that has to come over is border security.”

House Democrats, meanwhile, have signaled that kind of legislation is a non-starter.

“We have been building a wall under Democratic and Republican presidents,” Rep. Lou Correa, a Democrat on the Subcommittee on Immigration and Border Security, complained. “Thirty-five years of building the wall, Clinton, Obama, the Bushes. Where’s immigration reform? You had border security. You want some more, you’re gonna get some more, but you’re not going to get immigration reform.”

The Senate

Meanwhile, a bipartisan coalition of senators is pursuing a grand compromise on immigration, a possibility that fizzled at the end of last year’s lame duck session of Congress.

Broad details of the framework, negotiated by then-Democratic Sen. Kyrsten Sinema and GOP Sen. Thom Tillis, at the time included funding for border security to the tune of $25 billion and a year-long extension of Title 42, the COVID-era public health policy that has been used for rapid expulsions for migrants and would-be asylum seekers. The compromise also would have funded new processing centers, asylum officers, and immigration judges to address backlogs. And it would have reformed the employment visa system and include a path to citizenship for around 2 million DACA recipients. 

The group, led by Sens. John Cornyn, a Texas Republican, and the newly independent Sinema, traveled to El Paso, Texas, less than a day after Biden visited. With them were GOP Sens. Thom Tillis, James Lankford, and Jerry Moran, and Democratic Sens. Chris Coons, Mark Kelly, and Chris Murphy. That group has been instrumental in notching bipartisan deals on other landmark legislation during the first two years of the Biden administration.

“Most of the time when you come to the border it’s kind of shirts vs. skins,” Cornyn said according to Punchbowl News. “It’s all Republicans and everybody’s sort of egging each other on but not actually trying to fix the problem. I’m encouraged because I think Sen. Sinema and Sen. Murphy and others who are here with us have a history of doing bipartisan things and solving problems. So I think that’s a great place to start.”

With the Democrats narrowly controlling the Senate, it’s unclear whether enough Republicans would be willing to back such a compromise. Even then, a bill would have to get through the border-focused House GOP to become law.

“I think ‘immigration’ is a very misleading word for this,” Rep. August Pfluger, a Texas Republican, said. “It’s about security.”

The Executive Branch

Congress’ inability to pass large-scale immigration reform has led presidential administrations to unilaterally craft immigration policy for decades. Biden has been no exception to the rule. 

As part of the trip to the U.S.-Mexico border last week, the White House announced strategies—some new and others repackaged—that outline enforcement measures and legal immigration standards.

Going forward, Biden’s policies will include expelling more Cuban, Haitian, Nicaraguan, and Venezuelan migrants to Mexico, as well as expanding the usage of Title 42. The administration also said it would accept 30,000 migrants from Cuba, Haiti, Nicaragua and Venezuela who apply from their country of origin without first trying to cross the border and have a U.S. sponsor. (The Morning Dispatch has a helpful breakdown with more details here.)

But analysts insist such measures will never be a permanent solution.

“It is a blunt instrument that doesn’t work,” Aaron Reichlin-Melnick, policy director at the American Immigration Council, said. “Title 42 has been in effect going on the last three years this March, and obviously things at the border are not better today than they were in March 2020.”

Harvest Prude is a former reporter at The Dispatch.