Senators delivered a warning shot Wednesday to President Biden over the border mess and interior immigration enforcement in a series of votes signaling that even some Democrats are worried that the administration has lost its way.
In one direct rebuke to Mr. Biden, senators voted overwhelmingly to embrace language that would require the administration to give COVID-19 tests and get back negative results before an illegal immigrant could be released from the border.
In a second surprising vote, senators approved language pushing back on the deportation restrictions the Biden administration has imposed on U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, discouraging arrests or removal of most illegal immigrants, including those with older criminal convictions or whose crimes weren’t deemed to be serious.
Amid reports of illegal immigrant sex offenders being released into communities, 53 senators, including several Democrats up for reelection next year, backed an amendment calling for ICE to have enough funding to deport any criminals the agency’s officers encounter.
But worries about the immediate problems on the border did not derail Democrats from their overall goal of a broad amnesty for millions of illegal immigrants, a major plank in the $3.5 trillion budget proposal that cleared the Senate on a party-line vote in an overnight session.
Indeed, during the debate, Democrats shot down an amendment by Sen. Chuck Grassley, Iowa Republican, to bar illegal immigrants with criminal records from being included in an amnesty.
The votes aren’t binding, but they do give a sense of lawmakers’ thinking as they prepare for a new immigration debate.
Rosemary Jenks, vice president at NumbersUSA, which advocates for stricter immigration limits, said Republicans’ victories on the amendments dealing with ICE and border COVID-19 releases show Democrats are facing public pressure to “modify their messaging.”
But the Grassley amendment vote “proves that all the tough talk is pretense,” she said.
“Democrats know that a significant share of the illegal aliens they want to reward with amnesty have criminal convictions, including for DUIs and sexual assault. The Grassley vote shows that they have every intention of moving forward with their amnesty, even if it means defending criminal aliens and even though they know it will drive even more illegal immigration,” she said.
Although months of hard work of writing the contours of the amnesty remain, immigrant rights advocates were thrilled with how unscathed the core of the plan emerged from this week’s lightning-fast debate.
“We have cracked open the path to victory,” said Gustavo Torres, executive director of CASA, a major advocacy group in the Mid-Atlantic.
The budget leaves wide latitude for action as Democrats work to write the details of the plan, but the ideas bubbling to the top include legal status and eventual citizenship rights for farmworkers, illegal immigrant “Dreamers,” those in the U.S. under special humanitarian protections and those working “essential” jobs.
Democratic leaders also said they will work on “investments in smart and effective border security measures.”
Republicans clearly saw the immigration provisions as one of the biggest vulnerabilities of Democrats’ blueprint.
Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, the top Republican on the Senate Budget Committee, said he couldn’t believe the logic of offering legalization during “an invasion of this country by illegal immigrants.”
“Here’s what’s happening as I speak: These statements are being translated into Spanish and every other language, and human traffickers all over the world are going to let the word get out that the Senate is about to increase the number of green cards available for illegal immigrants,” Mr. Graham said.
Sen. Thom Tillis, North Carolina Republican, said he filed 300 amendments dealing with immigration and other lawmakers filed dozens of others.
Five immigration-related amendments were granted votes.
One by Sen. Jerry Moran, Kansas Republican, expressed a sense of need for strengthening enforcement during the border “crisis.” That was approved on a 76-23 vote, with more than half of Democrats joining Republicans.
A proposal by Sen. Roger Marshall, Kansas Republican, to require that border jumpers be quarantined until they test negative for COVID-19 drew even stronger support. Republicans pointed to data showing the release of 1,000 COVID-19-positive migrants last week in one Texas community.
“There is a health care crisis at our southern border, and it is unacceptable for the government to be transporting illegal immigrants who pose a grave risk of transmitting COVID across our nation,” Mr. Marshall, a medical doctor, told colleagues.
He proposed more money for COVID-19 testing and a government quarantine on any migrant until a negative test comes back.
Sen. Richard J. Durbin of Illinois, the Democrats’ point man on immigration, said that would leave needy migrants marooned in remote places until they could be tested. He called that “not humane,” but he voted for the amendment nonetheless. It cleared on an 88-11 vote.
More contentious was the proposal by Sen. Bill Hagerty, Tennessee Republican, to back stiffer ICE enforcement.
“Despite the border crisis and record border crossings, the Biden administration has drastically reduced deportations to roughly one-quarter what they were last fiscal year, reaching the lowest levels on record this spring,” Mr. Hagerty said. “That means the administration is allowing thousands of criminal illegal aliens per month to remain in American communities and potentially commit more crimes.”
Mr. Durbin complained that Mr. Hagerty’s proposal was too broad and would include illegal immigrants who have been convicted of misdemeanors.
He also said it would interfere with the Biden administration‘s priorities laying out who can and can’t be deported.
Still, the Democrat-controlled Senate approved the amendment by a 53-46 vote. Among the four Democrats backing ICE were Sens. Catherine Cortez Masto of Nevada, Margaret Wood Hassan of New Hampshire and Mark Kelly of Arizona — all of whom face potentially difficult reelection races next year.
Two Republican proposals failed, both on party-line votes.
A plan by Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas to extend the government’s use of expulsion powers to immediately oust illegal immigrants during the COVID-19 pandemic was defeated. Democrats said the measure would tie Mr. Biden‘s hands.
Democrats also rejected Mr. Grassley‘s plan to block criminal migrants from joining the amnesty. Mr. Durbin said it would apply to illegal immigrants with minor criminal convictions and even to those charged with crimes but not yet convicted.
He said that violated the illegal immigrants’ “due process” rights.
Congress is embarking on its fifth major immigration debate this century after efforts in 2006, 2007, 2013 and 2018, none of which resulted in what leaders on both sides agree is a needed overhaul of a broken system.
By attaching their amnesty plans to the budget, Democrats are trying to thread a tight needle. They are unlikely to get any Republican support for the $3.5 trillion behemoth, so they will have to keep all 50 members of their Senate caucus, and almost all members of their House caucus, on board.
But divisions over how much new border security or interior enforcement should be included could upend that quest for unity.
The Congressional Hispanic Caucus this week warned colleagues against “anti-immigrant” amendments to the budget, saying it could “threaten the package’s prospects in the House of Representatives.”