McCain, Coons Propose Immigration Deal Without a Wall

Would give residency, path to citizenship to DACA recipients in exchange for border security

A view of the border wall between Mexico and the United States
A view of the border wall between Mexico and the United States / Getty Images
February 5, 2018

Sens. John McCain (R., Ariz.) and Chris Coons (D., Del.) are expected to introduce legislation Monday which would create a path to citizenship for DACA recipients and tightened border security measures, but which would omit President Donald Trump's much-desired border wall.

The bill would be a Senate companion to a bill introduced early last month in the House of Representatives by Reps. Pete Aguilar (D., Calif.) and Will Hurd (R., Texas). That bill, the Uniting and Securing America (USA) Act, currently has a bipartisan group of 54 co-sponsors in the House—27 Democrats and 27 Republicans.

The USA Act, as introduced by Aguilar and Hurd, would grant long-term permanent resident status and a path to citizenship to many recipients of the Obama administration's Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, which protected from deportation many illegal immigrants who arrived in the United States as minors. The Trump administration began to phase DACA out last September, with Trump calling on Congress to create a more permanent, legislative solution for its some 800,000 recipients.

McCain and Coons's bill would afford a path to citizenship for young immigrants who have lived in the United States since before Dec. 31, 2013, according to the Wall Street Journal. That would mean a larger number than either the total number of DACA recipients or the number—1.8 million—that the White House proposed to amnesty in its own immigration plan.

In exchange for the protection and path to citizenship for DACA recipients, the House bill would implement Rep. Hurd's Secure Miles with All Resources and Technology (SMART) Act, which would enhance border security using a variety of sensors and computerized surveillance techniques.

McCain and Coons's bill would not "direct any funding for border technology," the Wall Street Journal reported, although it would direct the Department of Homeland Security to create a strategy for operational control of the border by 2020, and grant $110 million to encourage coordination between border patrol agents and local law enforcement.

Notably, neither version of the bill includes funding for a physical, concrete border wall, of the type that President Trump advocated for on the campaign trail, and which remains a key demand of his base. The SMART wall would cost $24 million per mile less than a physical border wall, Hurd told the Free Beacon in a recent interview, and would also be more effective at actually deterring illegal immigration.

"When a border patrol agent's response time is measured in hours to days, a wall is not a physical barrier, so you've got to have another way in order to watch that," Hurd told the Free Beacon.

Both versions of the bill would also increase the number of immigration judges and attorneys. This would help address the enormous backlog facing immigration courts—recent data show some 650,000 cases presently pending.

McCain and Coons were positive in their announcement, arguing that their bill represents a possible bipartisan fix to Congress's on-going budget and immigration gridlock.

"The bill I'm introducing with Senator McCain today doesn't solve every immigration issue, but it does address the two most pressing problems we face: Protecting DACA recipients and securing the border. I believe there is bipartisan support for both of those things and I believe that we can reach a budget deal that increases funding for our military and important domestic programs," Coons said.

The Senate bill, if passed, would free up Congress in the face of two looming deadlines: The possible (although now, thanks to a court ruling, not fully certain) expiration of DACA in early March, and the threat of yet another government shutdown if funding is not extended by Thursday. Reaching a deal on DACA and immigration, including the White House's priorities on the issue, has represented a major barrier to full government funding.

"For months, I have been calling on my colleagues to complete a bipartisan budget agreement to lift the caps on defense spending and fully fund the military," McCain said. "While reaching a deal cannot come soon enough for America's service members, the current political reality demands bipartisan cooperation to address the impending expiration of the DACA program and secure the southern border."

It is likely, however, that the McCain-Coons-Aguilar-Hurd bill will run into opposition from immigration hardliners, especially in the Trump administration. President Trump appeared to respond to the proposed deal on Twitter Monday morning, calling any deal without a wall "a total waste of time."

"Any deal on DACA that does not include STRONG border security and the desperately needed WALL is a total waste of time. March 5th is rapidly approaching and the Dems seem not to care about DACA. Make a deal!" Trump wrote.

The White House has released its own immigration reform proposal, which has failed to gain traction in Congress. That plan would grant amnesty and a path to citizenship to 1.8 million current residents, including both DACA recipients and those who were DACA-eligible but did not apply.

In return, the plan would end the diversity visa lottery, phase out chain migration, and create a $25 billion dollar trust fund for border security, including a physical wall. Estimates suggest that the White House plan would, over the long run, cut total annual immigration levels by 33 to 44 percent.