But this assumes that a deal would have to win over most Democrats, as restrictionist Republicans will inevitably drag their feet on anything resembling an amnesty. There might be another way forward. The key to unlocking it will be the handling of future immigration levels.
The two bills to watch are the Secure and Succeed Act, which largely reflects the immigration framework outlined by the Trump White House, and the cleverly-titled PILLAR (Preserving Immigration Legal Levels and Achieving Readiness) Act, which takes a subtly different tack. While Secure and Succeed presently has more support, it is PILLAR that may unravel the knot.
Unlike the various bipartisan bills that have been floated, both Secure and Succeed and PILLAR are efforts to forge a coalition that includes a critical mass of restrictionist Republicans, yet that can potentially grow from there to win over just enough centrist Democrats. For now, Senate Republicans seem to be coalescing around Secure and Succeed. Spearheaded by Iowa Senator Chuck Grassley and six other GOP senators, who represent a range of opinion on broader questions of immigration policy, the bill is being pitched as a measure that will give Congress breathing room to redesign America’s immigration system in the years to come. Two of its sponsors, Thom Tillis of North Carolina and James Lankford of Oklahoma, had previously sponsored the SUCCEED Act, which narrowly focused on providing a path to legal status for the DACA eligible, and they’re widely seen as immigration moderates. Also sponsoring the bill are Tom Cotton of Arkansas and David Perdue of Georgia, the architects of the RAISE Act, a bill that focused on curbing family-based admissions and creating a new points system to allocate employment-based green cards. Cotton in particular has been forthright in making the case for a reduction in future immigration levels, which has made him something of a lightning rod for immigration advocates.
If Secure and Succeed wins the support of 41 senators, it forecloses the possibility of a more permissive approach, which will make it the only game in town. For restrictionist Republicans who fear that an inconstant Trump will concede too much, bluster notwithstanding, this might be a victory in itself. To have any hope of passing, though, the bill would then need to win over Republicans who are wary of reducing future immigration levels, or at least wary of doing anything too controversial.
So how can the bill win over the skittish? The most controversial aspect of Secure and Succeed, like RAISE before it, is its approach to family-based admissions. Under the bill, future family-based admissions would be limited to spouses and unmarried children younger than 18. The parents of adult citizens would no longer be issued green cards without numerical restriction, but they would be eligible for renewable five-year nonimmigrant visas. Currently existing family preference categories, such as for the adult children and siblings of U.S. citizens, would be eliminated. However, all those who are currently in the queue for family preference slots would be grandfathered in. As a result, family-based admissions under these categories would continue for a decade or more as the waitlist is steadily exhausted. The idea is that U.S. citizens and lawful permanent residents who’ve already applied under the old rules should be held harmless.