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Are Republicans Interested in a Bipartisan Breakthrough on Immigration? Listen to What They Are Saying

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The GOP’s “border security first” mantra is code for “hell no”


Republicans’ impending filibuster against the bipartisan commission to investigate the deadly January 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol is the latest reminder that the Trump-ified GOP is getting to no on just about everything. They oppose moves to strengthen our democracy, to investigate the attack by insurrectionists on the Capitol, to reduce gun violence, and to go big on infrastructure and jobs. 

As EJ Dionne stated in his latest column, “President Biden and his party are facing their first big moment of truth: How much can they get done, and does it matter whether they get Republican support along the way? The second question irritates many Democrats, since it’s clear that some of their most important objectives … will never win enough Republican votes to overcome a Senate filibuster.”

What about immigration? You have to listen carefully to what Republicans are saying. They are repeating the same “border security first” they have deployed to oppose legalization measures for the last two decades. We understand the desire of Senate Democrats to exhaust bipartisan attempts, but we urge them to be clear-eyed. The bad faith of their Republican colleagues is evident in their public pronouncements. In turn, what they are saying reveals that virtually all Senate Republicans will oppose a long overdue breakthrough on citizenship for undocumented immigrants. 

Here are some revealing quotes from GOP leaders:

House Republican Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA)

  • Rep. McCarthy Criticized Democrats For Passing Immigration Reform, Saying That Border Security Needed To Be Addressed First Due To The So-Called Border Crisis. “…House Leader Kevin McCarthy led a delegation of a dozen other House Republicans to El Paso, where they visited U.S. Customs and Border Protection agents, migrant families, and a section of former President Donald Trump’s border wall. ‘Why would you do those bills without first doing border security? Why would you do that while you’re ignoring what’s happening on the border?’ McCarthy said on Tuesday after he returned to Washington. ‘You’re only going to make it worse because you’re sending the wrong message.’” [TIME, 3/18/21]

Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY)

  • McConnell Said “100 Percent Of My Focus Is On Standing Up” To The Biden Administration.” “Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) deflects when asked twice about concerns regarding Rep. Liz Cheney (R-WY) leadership position and election doubts in Republican Party: ‘100% of my focus is on standing up to this administration …’” [The Recount, Twitter, 5/5/21]
  • Sen. McConnell Said Instead Of Trying To “Repair The [Border] Crisis” Democrats Were Working On An “Amnesty Plan.” “‘Are they leaping into action to repair the crisis?’ McConnell said on the Senate floor. ‘No — they’re taking up an amnesty plan that would create a special new pathway to citizenship for illegal immigrants working in certain industries.’” [Bloomberg Law, 3/18/21]

Representative Tom Cole (R-OK)

  • Republican Rep. Tom Cole Said He Would Oppose Immigration Legislation He Supported In 2019 Due To The Border Crisis. “Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.), meanwhile, said Wednesday he would ‘probably’ oppose the farm workers bill despite voting for it in 2019, citing both the border crisis and the fact that his state’s Farm Bureau came out against the legislation more adamantly this time around.” [Politico. 3/18/21]

Senator Susan Collins (R-ME)

  • Collins Said The Border Was “Such A Disaster” That She Did Not See How Congress Could Work On A Bill For Dreamers. “‘Many of us support giving a path to citizenship’ to that population of mostly younger immigrants, said Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine)…‘But now the border is such a disaster that I don’t see how you can do just a bill to deal with Dreamers.’” [Politico, 3/17/21]

Senator John Cornyn (R-TX)

  • Sen. Cornyn Said “Before We Can Do Anything Meaningful On Immigration, We’re Going To Have To Deal With The Current Crisis At The Border. “And Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) has said, ‘Before we can do anything meaningful on immigration, we’re going to have to deal with the current crisis at the border.’” [New York Times, 5/3/21]

Representative Rodney Davis (R-IL)

  • Rep. Davis Said He Would Not Support Immigration Reform Until “The Current Border Crisis [Was] Under Control.” “Rep. Davis reflected on what he saw and learned: […] ‘We also need to take immediate immigration action at the federal level, and that must start with President Biden reversing some of his immigration policy actions. In the past, I’ve supported several iterations of immigration reform, but the reality is we cannot reform and modernize our immigration system without first getting the current border crisis under control, fully securing every mile of our borders, and discouraging unlawful entry into our country.’ [Congressman Rodney Davis statement, 4/13/21]

Senator Lindsey Graham (R-SC)

  • Sen. Graham Said He Would Vote Against His Own Bipartisan Immigration Reform Bill Introduced Just 43 Days Prior Because The Border Was Out Of Control. “Lindsey Graham introduced a bipartisan immigration bill 43 days ago. But if it came up on the Senate floor today, he wouldn’t support it. ‘God, no,’ the South Carolina Republican senator scoffed in an interview. ‘I’m not in support of legalizing one person until you’re in control of the border.’” [Politico, 3/19/21]
  • Sen. Graham Said He Didn’t Think There Was A “Snowball’s Chance In Hell” Of A Bipartisan, Comprehensive Immigration Reform Package Passing. “A bipartisan group of senators is plodding ahead with talks on comprehensive immigration overhaul legislation, but Republicans say they’re reluctant to sign on to any agreement unless the White House takes stronger action to stem migration at the U.S.-Mexico border. Republicans also want to see the Biden administration restart construction on the border wall before they’ll consider legal pathways that Democrats want for undocumented immigrants living in the United States. ‘I don’t think they’re going to have a snowball’s chance in hell of doing that given the massive influx at the border,’ said Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C. ‘There’ll be no immigration reform until you get control of the border.’” [Roll Call, 5/12/21]


Senator Chuck Grassley (R-IA)

  • Sen. Grassley Said “How Can You Pass An Immigration Bill When You Have An Open Border?” “Republican senators on Friday indicated that discussion of possible immigration deals to give illegal immigrants a pathway to citizenship would be off the table until the crisis at the southern border is ended. ‘How can you pass an immigration bill when you have an open border?’ Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, said at a press conference at the border. ‘If they want to accomplish anything on immigration and I want to help them, it would be securing the border.’” [Fox News, 3/27/21]

Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL)

  • Rubio Said He Had Made It Clear That “A Blanket Amnesty For Those Who Are In The Country Unlawfully Is A Non-Starter.” “Axios couldn’t reach Scott, but Rubio blamed the Biden administration for a crisis on the Southern border. ‘I have made it clear that a blanket amnesty for those who are in the country unlawfully is a non-starter,’ Rubio said in a statement. ‘It is impossible to do anything substantive on immigration until President Biden enforces existing immigration law.’” [Axios, 5/26/21]

Senator Thom Tillis (R-NC) 

  • Tillis Opposed Immigration Legislation He Once Supported, Saying He Would Not Support A Pathway To Citizenship For Dreamers Without It Being Paired With Border Security. “Graham’s not alone in now rejecting immigration legislation he previously supported while insisting on beefing up border security. Tillis once offered a 15-year pathway to citizenship for young people who entered the country illegally but said he couldn’t support that Republican proposal at the moment. ‘There’s no scenario I would support even what we called the SUCCEED Act, which was a path to citizenship for the [Dreamers], without it being paired with border security,’ Tillis said, referring to the conservative alternative to the DREAM Act that he had endorsed.” [Politico, 3/19/21

As recent NPR/Ipsos immigration polling reminds us, Americans overwhelmingly back citizenship for millions. Despite Republican “border security first” objections, voters recognize that “the current situation at the border is a problem” and they want action on citizenship legislation. In short, the American people reject the GOP’s core excuse for inaction. They want Congress to formally recognize settled undocumented immigrants as the Americans they already are.