Bipartisan group of senators renew call for immigration reform during border trip

John Cornyn also suggested Joe Biden's recent visit wasn't fully informative.

January 9, 2023, 9:59 PM

Less than 24 hours after President Joe Biden made the same trip, a bipartisan group of senators on Monday visited the southern border in El Paso, Texas, as they work to craft an elusive legislative response to the ongoing surge of migrants entering the United States.

The group, led by Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, spanned the political spectrum.

Cornyn, who has made increased border security a top priority, was joined by Republican Sens. Thom Tillis, Jerry Moran and James Lankford, all of whom toured an El Paso migrant facility on Monday afternoon alongside newly minted independent Arizona Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, top Biden ally Sen. Chris Coons, D-Del., and Democratic Sens. Chris Murphy and Mark Kelly, of Connecticut and Arizona, respectively.

After meeting with city officials, nonprofits and business owners to discuss the impact that migration in El Paso has had on the city and touring a temporary facility for migrants, the group of senators renewed their commitment to trying to find a legislative solution to what members from both parties called a "crisis" at the border.

Past efforts to pass major immigration legislation have repeatedly stalled in Congress, where the issue divides Republicans.

"We need an immigration system that is safe, orderly, humane and legal," Cornyn said at a news conference in El Paso. "We keep hearing from President Biden and others that we need Congress to step up and provide some answers, and I'm happy that we are."

The group has vowed to form a bipartisan coalition that will work to flesh out a possible plan in the new Congress. Anything the senators come up with will require bipartisan cooperation to clear the necessary 60-vote threshold, given the current 51-49 split between Democrats and Republicans.

"This system isn't working any longer," Murphy said. "And it's time for us to come together, Republicans and Democrats, and find a better path forward."

PHOTO: Sen. Kyrsten Sinema speaks during a Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs committee hearing to examine social media's impact on homeland security, Sept. 14, 2022, on Capitol Hill in Washington.
Sen. Kyrsten Sinema speaks during a Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs committee hearing to examine social media's impact on homeland security, Sept. 14, 2022, on Capitol Hill in Washington.
Alex Brandon/AP, FILE

While the senators' attendance highlighted the continued bipartisan interest in legislating along the border, the reality is more challenging for any proposal in the newly divided 118th Congress.

When Democrats controlled both chambers through last year, they failed to change the asylum system or create a pathway to citizenship for so-called "Dreamers," who are young adult migrants who were illegally brought to the U.S. as kids. Democrats' efforts stumbled in part because of GOP insistence that any immigration reform package include funding for border security.

An 11th-hour proposal, led by Sinema and Tillis, would have provided tens of billions for border security and asylum request processing, as well as a path to citizenship for Dreamers. But it never came to the floor during the lame-duck session before the last Congress ended.

Sinema, during Monday's border visit, sought to breathe new life into that proposal, suggesting it would serve as a framework for bipartisan conversations moving forward.

Many of the senators that visited the border on Monday also served as key negotiators on major bipartisan pieces of legislation that the Senate passed during the first two years of Biden's presidency, including the infrastructure funding bill, gun safety legislation, the same-sex marriage bill and more.

"There's nobody else to turn to. It is our responsibility, it is our job to try to address these very difficult, multifaceted problems," Cornyn said. "There's no alternative but to step up and deal with this the best we can. This group of senators has a history of dealing with challenges, tough political challenges."

But with the House now controlled by Republicans, Congress is likely to be at odds over any immigration proposal out of the Senate.

Sinema said Monday that she expects any negotiated package to be added onto an immigration bill sent over from the House. That means finding at least 60 senators to support the package and then getting those modifications back through the lower chamber.

House Republicans won't be quick to help Biden in dealing with a crisis that they argue is largely of his own making -- criticism his administration rejects, saying they are grappling with broader forces while seeking to humanely respond to desperate people, many of whom are still being turned away.

Biden on Sunday made his first border visit as president, amid sharp GOP criticism. Republicans have called for the impeachment of his Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas, accusing both men of ignoring the migration problem.

"We are dealing within a broken immigration system that Congress has failed to repair for decades," Mayorkas told ABC "This Week" anchor George Stephanopoulos on Sunday, echoing the president's call for legislative action.

PHOTO: President Joe Biden walks with U.S. Border Patrol agents along a stretch of the U.S.-Mexico border in El Paso Texas, Jan. 8, 2023.
President Joe Biden walks with U.S. Border Patrol agents along a stretch of the U.S.-Mexico border in El Paso Texas, Jan. 8, 2023.
Andrew Harnik/AP

On Monday, the bipartisan group of senators in El Paso said they were prepared to take up that work.

"President Biden has asked us to take the next step. I look forward to being a part of this group and doing so," Coons said.

While in El Paso, the senators saw a version of the city that some critics suggested was sanitized or cleaned up in advance of Biden's visit, which did not see him meet with any migrants. The city's mayor, Oscar Leeser, who met with the group on Monday, said El Paso appeared to be in better shape only because the migration numbers have recently gone down.

Leeser provided the senators with a book of images he took himself over the last several months, which he said shows the city when conditions were worse. He described photos of migrants arriving in vans and sleeping on the streets.

He told the senators that he had a one-on-one conversation with Biden during the president's visit and that he showed Biden the photo book, which they went through page by page.

Cornyn said he was "very appreciative" of Biden's visit to his home state but added that he hoped the photos Leeser provided showed the president that "what we see today is not what we saw two weeks ago, not what we may see next week."

The group of lawmakers will continue their border visit on Tuesday in Arizona, where they'll be briefed by the Arizona National Guard and Border Patrol and tour a migrant processing center.

Editor's note: A previous version of this story said that Sen. Kyrsten Sinema led the trip. Sinema is leading the Arizona leg of the trip scheduled for Tuesday, but Sen. Cornyn led Monday's Texas visit. The story has been updated to reflect this.

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