Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., is hoping for another rare bipartisan breakthrough on an issue that has long eluded Congress: reforming the U.S. immigration system.
Murphy was part of a bipartisan group of senators who traveled to parts of the border shared by the U.S. and Mexico on Monday and Tuesday — first to El Paso, Texas, and then to Yuma, Ariz. The trip was a day after President Joe Biden’s first trip to the southern border since taking office.
The trip was assembled to help the lawmakers better understand the challenges and landscape of the border communities and the migrants who are coming into the country. The coalition of senators believes it is time for Congress to act on immigration even as they enter a divided government that includes a new GOP House majority.
Like the issue of gun reform, immigration has been a major hurdle for Congress, with decades of inaction. Past deals to overhaul the current system fizzled out. The Senate passed a compromise bill in 2013 before it lost steam in the House. And in 2021, the Democratic-led House passed its own bill, but it went nowhere in the Senate.
With no deal in sight, immigration has become more of a political wedge issue for years.
Because of that, Murphy and others in the group argue they want to put in place meaningful reforms to deal with the influx of migrants and their legal statuses. On a Wednesday call with reporters, Murphy said much has changed over the past decade — migrants are still arriving from Mexico and Central America but also a larger number from Russia, China and India.
Murphy noted that a “record-setting” 2.5 million migrants were apprehended at the southern border last year. And with New York being one of the top destinations, Murphy said many of them come to Connecticut.
“Connecticut is not a border state, but there is no doubt that a lack of order at the border affects us in Connecticut,” Murphy said. “When you have that large a number of migrants coming in an unplanned way, it also stresses out social services at the border but also throughout the country.”
“We need to be able to better manage the inflow of migrants in a way that allows us to plan in Connecticut,” he added.
Of the seven members who went on the trip, Murphy said a few of them worked directly with him on crafting the bipartisan bill on gun safety that passed Congress last summer: Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas; Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, D-Ariz.; and Sen. Thom Tillis, R-N.C.
He believes that the same bipartisan coalition that got through a long-stalled issue on Capitol Hill has the ability to do it again.
“The group that went to the border is a group that has been able to break through on issues that had similar decades of inaction,” Murphy said. “The group that went to the border has found a way to compromise on difficult issues like guns and get bills passed in the House and the Senate, and our belief is we can do the same thing on the issue of immigration.”
One core part of reforms would be revamping the process for migrants seeking asylum in the country. Murphy said refugees should apply for asylum before arriving in the U.S., and the processing of claims should go much faster so people are waiting “days, not years.”
But the Connecticut senator believes there should be other forms of legal immigration, including establishing a pathway to citizenship for “Dreamers” — those who were brought to the U.S. when they were children. Congress has struggled to pass legislation to secure the legal protections created under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA).
Still, Murphy acknowledges the steep challenges of passing any such legislation and the priorities sought by Republicans like enhanced border security, more fencing and border patrol officers and potentially stricter eligibility to qualify for asylum.
Democrats, including some in the state’s congressional delegation, are wary that House Republicans will want to work on issues with Democrats, particularly issues as fraught as immigration reform.
Plus, hardline conservatives will have much more influence over the House after the days-long saga to elect a speaker. The new GOP majority is setting up votes on immigration bills that are unlikely to garner any support from Democrats. And if they pass the House, they are expected to stall in the Democratic-led Senate.
But some Republicans who joined the congressional trip are willing to negotiate a deal.
“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, according to ABC News. “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.”
Murphy, who is chairman of the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Homeland Security, said he is new to leading on this issue but argues he now has the experience of securing bipartisan deals.
Regardless if a deal emerges in the current session of Congress or in the future, he believes the trip will help inform his leadership of the subcommittee, which funds the border as well as the country’s immigration system.
The Connecticut Mirror/Connecticut Public Radio federal policy reporter position is made possible, in part, by funding from the Robert and Margaret Patricelli Family Foundation and Engage CT.