President Joe Biden walks along a stretch of the U.S.-Mexico border in El Paso Texas.
A lot of lawmakers would rather somebody else fix the border. (Andrew Harnik/AP)

Republicans Want the Border Fixed. They Just Want Someone Else to Do It.

Hardly anyone in Congress actually wants to legislate.

The Senate border deal collapsed almost as soon as it came out because it’s a complex, partisan and emotional issue, and Donald Trump doesn’t want Joe Biden to get credit for making progress on it. But there’s another reason every bipartisan immigration plan fails spectacularly: At the end of the day, a lot of lawmakers would rather somebody else deal with it.

Passing an immigration bill would require members of the House and Senate to take extremely difficult votes, and they’d have to live with — and take responsibility for — the results. Isn’t it easier just to punt it to the White House and blame the president for whatever comes next?

“There are a good number of people who prefer to not have to cast a tough vote,” said Republican Sen. Kevin Cramer of North Dakota, who didn’t support the border deal but praised negotiators for working on it. “They don’t want to explain a tough vote, which is why no is the default. Because noes are always easy to explain: ‘It wasn’t good enough.’”

Those ‘noes’ came remarkably quickly this week, with some Republican senators rejecting the compromise bill within minutes of it being released (and a few even before there were words to read). House GOP leaders, too, swore it had no chance in their chamber. Negotiators put in months of painstaking work to try to solve what Republicans say is the biggest problem facing the country, and without a single vote taken or amendment offered — and 11 months left in this Congress — GOP leaders threw in the towel on tackling border legislation for the year.

“We have no real chance here to make a law,” Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell, previously one of the bill’s most vocal backers, declared Tuesday, less than 48 hours after the bill’s sponsors shared the text.

Sen. James Lankford, the conservative Oklahoma Republican who negotiated the bipartisan deal, wouldn’t attribute his colleagues’ reluctance to cowardice outright, but he told NOTUS he has heard from GOP senators who wondered, “Why am I working on a bill that is this noisy, that people are this energized on, the House is not going to take up at all. … So why am I doing this?”

Why, indeed, would legislators try to legislate?

Congress hasn’t passed major changes to the country’s overloaded and chaotic immigration system in nearly 40 years. Instead, as new arrivals and asylum waitlists have surged, various administrations have tried to process claims, deport undocumented migrants and shore up border security with a mishmash of executive orders that can be — and have been — overturned by both their successors and courts.

Congress doesn’t seem capable of that, though. When senators have struck other deals in the past, House GOP leaders have repeatedly shot them down to placate right-wing critics. Outside pressure is intense too. Lankford said on the Senate floor Wednesday a political commentator told him recently, “If you try to move a bill that solves the border crisis during this presidential year, I will do whatever I can to destroy you.” And by the way, that commentator, who he refused to name, has “been faithful to their promise.”

Lawmakers also just aren’t willing to devote much time to considering immigration reform bills. In 2018, senators gave up debating how to deal with hundreds of thousands of undocumented immigrants who were brought to the United States as children after casting a few failed votes and spending one week of floor time on the topic. They still haven’t found an answer to that question, and they don’t seem to feel much urgency to do so.

Lankford’s bill (negotiated with Democratic Sen. Chris Murphy and independent Sen. Kyrsten Sinema) wouldn’t include pathways to citizenship for unauthorized migrants who are already in the country, as Democrats have long demanded. Instead it would make it harder for migrants to apply for asylum, speed up the deportation process and empower the Biden administration to hire more border patrol agents. Progressive lawmakers and immigration advocates have slammed those changes as inhumane.

Donald Trump tours a section of the border wall in San Luis, Ariz
The border can’t really be secured unless Trump wins the presidency again, Republicans argue.(Evan Vucci/AP)

Conservative opponents want the bill to shut down the border entirely, rather than continuing to allow a certain number of immigrants who say they are fleeing persecution to seek asylum. They also think Biden could be a lot stricter if he wanted to, without congressional action. In interviews with 20 members of Congress, lawmakers blamed the complexity of the issue and the fierce partisanship it inspires for their inaction. Several of them called the debate too “emotional.” But Republicans had another argument against this week’s proposal — that the border can’t really be secured unless Trump wins the presidency again.

Ohio Rep. Jim Jordan said on Fox News this week that Congress should take a “time-out” on immigration negotiations and “let the country decide” in the upcoming presidential election.

“Trump controlled the border,” Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky claimed on Tuesday. “But under the same set of laws, Biden’s not controlling the border. So really, there is a lack of willpower.”

Rep. Dan Crenshaw, a Texas Republican, scoffed at Paul’s argument. If that were the case, he asked, why did House Republicans pass their own partisan border security measure last year? Why didn’t Trump just shut down the border when he was president?

“We do need changes to law,” Crenshaw told NOTUS. “Reasonable people can actually make a good bill here.”

Does he have high hopes for that? “Ha, no,” he answered. “But I’m still going to try.”

Cramer said that even when most members of Congress agree they should do something, the institution struggles to think on its feet. Congress is “not designed to be forward leaning very much,” he told NOTUS. “We are creatures of another 340 million people or so whose opinions we reflect.”

He worried lawmakers won’t really be able to take action unless they have no other option, like if a terror attack enabled by a border crossing happens: “Somebody will be forced to wake up and say we better deal with this and do it now.”

Lankford says he isn’t done trying. Pressing pause for now just gives his colleagues more time to review the legislation and come up with their own tweaks, he argued this week. Sen. Lindsey Graham, a South Carolina Republican, has called for an open amendments process on the Senate floor, where lawmakers could offer changes and vote on them. But there’s no clear path forward now that Senate Republicans have rejected moving to debate on the measure (a procedural vote failed on Wednesday, 49-50, effectively killing the legislation).

Even if the chamber did have a path forward to debate, Democrats don’t think Republicans would take it seriously. “They’re clowns. They’re not serious legislators,” Hawaii Sen. Brian Schatz told NOTUS. “In this profession, your word is your bond. It’s the only currency that really matters. And they all collectively went back on their word.”

“They’ve decided they want to keep chaos at the border because it’s a political winner for them,” Murphy told reporters of Republicans.

The Senate on Wednesday moved closer to debating the bipartisan deal’s other components without the border provisions: funding to replenish American weapons stockpiles, military support for Ukraine and Israel, and assistance for Taiwan — which the Chinese government claims as its own — to defend itself.

If in the end the Senate simply passes what amounts to Biden’s original emergency funding request, what was the point of all this?

West Virginia Republican Sen. Shelley Moore Capito argued it wasn’t wasted time.

“We’ve highlighted what people are talking about. When I go home, that’s all people are talking about. How are we letting 300,000 people into our country?” she said. “So highlighting that, talking about it, trying to find solutions — they came up short — but I think it’s a good discussion to have.”

Failures like this can make lawmakers bitter about even trying. Sen. Angus King, a Maine independent, still remembers when he found out then-President Trump would oppose King’s own bipartisan immigration compromise in 2018. “We had the votes on Wednesday afternoon. We had 60-plus votes,” King recalled. “In the middle of the night, literally 11 o’clock at night, the White House threatened to veto the bill, said it was a terrible bill. Sort of similar to what you’re hearing now. And the bill lost.”

What did he learn from that experience? “It looks like these folks are more interested in the issue than the solution.”

Lankford’s lessons are a little different. “Study hard,” he advised hypothetical, future immigration negotiators. “Get some sleep before you get started.”


Haley Byrd Wilt is a reporter at NOTUS.