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Outside the Senate about an hour after they resumed deliberations on day 2 of the shutdown. Photo by Victoria Pickering / Flickr via Creative Commons

Immigration Negotiations Move Forward After Congress Ends Shutdown

After Congress voted to reopen the federal government on Monday, Colorado Senators Cory Gardner and Michael Bennet are working toward a bipartisan agreement on DACA.

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Congress voted to reopen the federal government on Monday, with Colorado’s two Senators playing key roles in the continuing immigration debate that triggered the three-day shutdown.

The House and Senate each approved a short-term spending bill that keeps the government running through February 8. The bill also authorizes a six-year funding extension for the Children’s Health Insurance Plan (CHIP), which pays for healthcare for 75,000 children and about 800 pregnant women in Colorado. The state had only enough federal funding to keep the program open until January 31.

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After Congress let CHIP funding expire in October, legislators could have reauthorized the popular program at any time. Instead, Republicans delayed a vote on the program until Friday, when they added it to the short-term continuing resolution to fund the federal government, but left out protections for so-called “Dreamers”—undocumented immigrants brought to the U.S. as children.

President Obama started the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program through an executive order in 2012 to protect about 700,000 of these immigrants from deportation, including some 17,000 Colorado residents. President Trump reversed the order in September, giving Congress until March 5 to find a permanent fix, and ultimately leading to this week’s shutdown.

In a Friday tweet, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R) said Democrats needed to choose between CHIP funding for children and protections for young Dreamers. Democrats rejected that premise: “To think we must vote for the CR or vote to protect Dreamers is a false choice,” replied Colorado Senator Michael Bennet (D).

Bennet and Republican Sen. Cory Gardner are part of the bipartisan “Gang of Six” senators who spent months negotiating an immigration deal. Their compromise addresses four demands made by President Trump: It provides a path to citizenship for Dreamers; allocates almost $1.6 billion for a border wall and $1.1 billion for border security; eliminates a Diversity Visa Lottery, which awards up to 50,000 visas for a green card per year by random selection in countries that don’t otherwise send many immigrants to the U.S.; and addresses “chain migration” by prohibiting Dreamers from sponsoring their parents.

“Let’s be clear: What we put in the bill was exactly what the president has requested,” Gardner said in a news conference with Bennet on Thursday. Bennet said the deal is “not one I would have struck on my own,” but one he thinks can pass Congress. In a televised immigration meeting last week that included both Bennet and Gardner, Trump seemed open to a deal, requesting a “bill of love” to address the fate of Dreamers.

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Just days later, however, Trump flipped. In an Oval Office meeting on Thursday, he refused to back the Gang of Six’s bipartisan deal after learning that it could increase immigration from Haiti and African countries. In a widely criticized exchange, Trump reportedly asked: “Why do we want all these people from ‘shithole countries’ coming here?”

Amidst confusion in both parties over Trump’s position, the shutdown began Saturday at midnight, after Senate Democrats and a handful of Republicans refused to authorize a fourth stopgap spending bill without protections for Dreamers. Bennet and four other Gang of Six members (Democratic Sens. Dick Durbin and Bob Menendez and Republican Sens. Lindsey Graham and Jeff Flake) voted against the spending package. Gardner voted in favor.

After a weekend blame game between parties, many Senate Democrats joined Republicans on Monday in an 81–18 vote to authorize a three-week spending package. In exchange, McConnell promised to allow a neutral immigration debate during that time. If a broader deal isn’t reached before the spending bill expires February 8, McConnell said “the Senate will immediately proceed to consideration of legislation” to protect Dreamers, according to Democratic Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer. “I expect the majority leader to fulfill his commitment to the Senate, to me and to the bipartisan group, and abide by this agreement,” Schumer added.

Key questions for Democrats are whether to believe McConnell’s promise to allow a vote on DACA, and whether any immigration debate will include the Gang of Six’s bipartisan compromise. During the 2017 tax-reform debate, McConnell promised Republican Sen. Susan Collins that he would allow debate on legislation to fix the individual insurance market before year’s end. He also promised Flake that he would bring a DACA bill to the floor this month. Neither promise has been fulfilled.

“We now need to ensure fair consideration of our Gang of Six proposal,” said Bennet in a statement after the vote. “Over the next three weeks, our focus should be on building support for this legislation so that it has the sixty votes required to pass the Senate.”

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Gardner, one of about 20 senators who brokered Monday’s compromise, said: “I wanted a bipartisan solution. I look forward to continuing to work with my colleagues on both sides of the aisle to fix many other remaining issues before us, including DACA, and to restore responsibility in Congress.”

While many House and Senate Democrats were furious with the deal, some moderate Senators say they’re putting their faith in the bipartisan negotiators, including Gardner, to hold McConnell to his commitments. After the House also approved the three-week spending bill with a 266–150 vote, Trump signed the bill Monday evening, resetting the clock for the next round of debate.

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