The U.S. Senate could vote on several immigration reform proposals Thursday, as lawmakers weigh competing plans that address issues such as protecting young undocumented immigrants, boosting border security and changing the rules for family-based immigration.
Late Wednesday, a bipartisan group of 16 senators announced an agreement on legislation that would offer a path to citizenship for the undocumented immigrants brought to the United States as children and protected from deportation by the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program terminated by President Donald Trump.
WATCH: US immigration decision
The bill would also authorize $25 billion in border security funding over the course of 10 years, while also focusing immigration enforcement efforts on repeat or serious criminals, those who represent a threat to national security and those who arrive in the country illegally after the end of June.
Trump backs more sweeping reforms that would add further limits to family-based immigration and prioritize newcomers who have advanced work skills over the current lottery system.
In a White House statement Wednesday, Trump urged lawmakers to enact “responsible and common sense immigration reform that delivers for the American people.”
Trump’s call reflects a broadened White House agenda on immigration compared to nearly six months ago, when the president rescinded DACA, the Obama administration policy benefiting the young immigrants, and gave Congress six months to craft a permanent legislative replacement.
Trump’s plan is encapsulated in legislation Senate Republicans brought to the floor during a week of deliberations devoted entirely to immigration issues.
Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Kentucky Republican, echoed the president’s call and argued for major changes to federal immigration law.
“Common sense dictates that we cannot simply treat one symptom of our broken immigration policy. We must address the underlying problems, as well. That means fixing broken parts of our legal immigration system,” McConnell said. “We must also ensure the safety of the American people.”
Democrats argued that sweeping alterations of America’s immigration system be considered separately from legislation addressing the plight of beneficiaries of DACA, sometimes called Dreamers.
“We will not stand by and allow Dreamers be held hostage, political hostage, to the administration’s entire immigration agenda,” Illinois Democrat Dick Durbin said.
DACA granted undocumented young people temporary permission to work and study in the United States. Hundreds of thousands of DACA recipients will be at risk of deportation beginning March 5, the date Trump set for the program to expire.
Democrats have proposed pairing a DACA fix with limited border security enhancements palatable to many senators of both political parties, and argued vigorously against Trump’s broader immigration agenda.
“We’re here to address a crisis that President Trump started last September when he ended DACA,” Robert Menendez of New Jersey said. He added that many elements of current immigration law, such as promoting family reunification, should be preserved.
“There is nothing more common sense that uniting brothers and sisters and sons and daughters [from other countries],” Menendez said. “They are bound by blood and held together by love.”
Republicans accused Democrats of misrepresenting the substance and intent of president’s proposals, arguing that Trump’s plan to fix DACA is more generous to young immigrants than anything former President Barack Obama ever achieved.
North Carolina Republican Senator Thom Tillis mocked any characterization of the White House plan as “hard line.”
“The ‘hard-line’ plan is to have nearly three times as many people with a path to [U.S.] citizenship. Citizenship. Not a piece of paper,” Tillis said. “The last time we did any major immigration bill, I was 5 years old. I think it’s about time to look at how the world has changed and maybe open your eyes to a better way – that benefits the person trying to come to this country but benefits our country as a result of their entry.”
McConnell has stated his intention to conclude Senate debate on immigration by week’s end. Anything the Senate passes would have to be approved by the House of Representatives and be signed by President Trump to become law.