Politics / February 6, 2024

What the F^&$ Happened to the Border-Security Bill?

The immigration bill was terrible—but the way it cratered is worrying.

Joan Walsh

Speaker of the House Mike Johnson told reporters that the Senate’s bipartisan border bill is “dead on arrival” after text of the legislation was released on February 4.

(Kevin Dietsch / Getty Images)

A bipartisan group of senators led by not-a-liberal Republican James Lankford of Oklahoma crafted a bipartisan immigration-reform “compromise” that was way less than progressives wanted and was larded with GOP sugarplums. But it had an adequate projection of Democratic votes and certainly GOP votes too.

(Democratic explanation: My team wants to govern, and we fear Biden is being brought low by worries about out-of-control immigration. Passing even a bad immigration bill could help stave off Trump.)

Chris Lehmann told the tale here: Once Donald Trump told House Republicans to oppose it—he’d rather have border chaos, which favors him politically—it lost most House GOP support. But amazingly to me, it lost Senate GOP support, which it had on Sunday. And even on Monday!

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The proposed bill also appropriated $60 billion in military aid to Ukraine, $14 billion in aid for Israel, and $10 billion in humanitarian aid for Palestinians, Ukrainians, and others in crises. It invested a stunning $20 billion in southern border security—mainly for policing. Unpopular with progressives, it gave officials the chance to close the border if migrants climbed past 10,000 a day.

Progressives recoiled, but MAGA House Republicans did too. Those draconian measures, they claimed, weren’t enough. (Translation: God forbid it shuts down border chaos—Trump’s 2024 fortunes would dim!)

Trump and MAGA Republicans have stirred border hysteria, because they have nothing else to run on. Republicans’ anti-abortion laws are wildly unpopular, and the economy has recovered and is remaining strong. Keeping alive the immigration issue could cut into the support Biden is receiving from those improving economy numbers.

What’s most surprising is that GOP senators are peeling away. Texas’s John Cornyn said he was “cautiously optimistic” about the bill. Then he came out against it. Cornyn is a conservative who occasionally tries to pass watered-down bipartisan bills. He was a big loss, representing the disappearance of that small but essential handful of Republicans who are willing to occasionally do the right thing.

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Later Tuesday, Republican Senators Thom Tillis and John Thune likewise pulled the plug—at least for now, they said. Ted Cruz blamed it all on minority leader Mitch McConnell, and said “I think it is” time for him to give up his leadership.

On the Democratic side, Senator Alex Padilla said the bill would “cause more chaos at the border, not less,” and it “fails to provide relief for Dreamers, farm workers, and the other undocumented long-term residents of our country who contribute billions to our economy, work in essential jobs, and make America stronger.” He predicted that more Democrats will oppose the bill. Senator Bernie Sanders said he would vote down its unfettered Israel funding.

On Sunday, the spiritual leader of the Senate, Mitch McConnell, supported the bill: “This is a humanitarian and security crisis of historic proportions, and Senate Republicans have insisted—not just for months but for years—that this urgent crisis demanded action.” But on Monday, he had to admit that “the political mood in the country has changed” and suggested pulling the bill.

Despite signaling his willingness to deal weeks ago, House Speaker Mike Johnson opposed a bill from the start, as did his leadership team. Trump toady Elise Stefanik, taking time out from posing for potential Trump VP pick pics, released a statement: “Any consideration of this Senate bill in its current form is a waste of time. It is DEAD on arrival in the House. We encourage the U.S. Senate to reject it.”

The weird thing is, the Senate bill would almost certainly pass the House if it came to the floor, but Johnson and his team won’t let it. I can’t help but think of the way House majority leader John Boehner likewise killed a more progressive and more bipartisan immigration reform bill in 2013, entirely for perceived political advantage. Now it’s for the political advantage of a defeated former president charged with 91 felonies. It just gets worse.

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

Joan Walsh

Joan Walsh, a national affairs correspondent for The Nation, is a coproducer of The Sit-In: Harry Belafonte Hosts The Tonight Show and the author of What’s the Matter With White People? Finding Our Way in the Next America. Her new book (with Nick Hanauer and Donald Cohen) is Corporate Bullsh*t: Exposing the Lies and Half-Truths That Protect Profit, Power and Wealth In America.

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