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Immigration reform stalled decade after Gang of 8's big push

FILE - Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., center, speaks of immigration reform legislation outlined by the Senate's bipartisan "Gang of Eight" that would create a path for the nation's 11 million unauthorized immigrants to apply for U.S. citizenship, April 18, 2013, on Capitol Hill in Washington. From left are, Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., Sen. Charles Schumer, Graham, R-S.C., Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., Sen. Robert Menendez, D-N.J., and Senate Majority Whip Richard Durbin, D-Ill. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite, File)
J. Scott Applewhite/AP
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AP
FILE - Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., center, speaks of immigration reform legislation outlined by the Senate's bipartisan "Gang of Eight" that would create a path for the nation's 11 million unauthorized immigrants to apply for U.S. citizenship, April 18, 2013, on Capitol Hill in Washington. From left are, Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., Sen. Charles Schumer, Graham, R-S.C., Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., Sen. Robert Menendez, D-N.J., and Senate Majority Whip Richard Durbin, D-Ill. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite, File)

Ten years ago this month, Sen. Chuck Schumer declared, "We all know that our immigration system is broken, and it's time to get to work on fixing it." Sen. John McCain quoted Winston Churchill. But it was Lindsey Graham who offered the boldest prediction.

"I think 2013 is the year of immigration reform," the South Carolina Republican said.

It wasn't. And neither has any year since those "Gang of Eight" senators from both parties gathered in a Washington auditorium to offer hopeful pronouncements. In fact, today's political landscape has shifted so dramatically that immigrant advocates and top architects of key policies over the years fear that any hope of an immigration overhaul seems further away than ever.

Many Republicans now see calling for zero tolerance on the border as a way to animate their base supporters. Democrats have spent the last decade vacillating between stiffer border restrictions and efforts to soften and humanize immigration policy — exposing deep rifts on how best to address broader problems.

"There are big questions about whether or not anything in the immigration family — anything at all — has the votes to pass," said Cecilia Muñoz, who served as President Barack Obama's top immigration adviser and was a senior member of Joe Biden's transition team before he entered the White House.

The last extensive package came under President Ronald Reagan in 1986, and President George H.W. Bush signed a more limited effort four years later. That means federal agents guarding the border today with tools like drones and artificial intelligence are enforcing laws written back when cellphones and the internet were novelties. Laying the problem bare in the deadliest of terms was a fire last month at a detention center on the Mexican side of the border that killed 39 migrants.

Congress came the closest to a breakthrough on immigration in 2013 with the Gang of Eight, which included Schumer, a New York Democrat who is now Senate majority leader, and Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla. Their proposal cleared the Senate that June and sought a pathway to citizenship for millions of people in the country illegally and expanded work visas while tightening border security and mandating that employers verify workers' legal status.

Democrats cheered a modernized approach to immigration. Republicans were looking for goodwill within the Latino community after Obama enjoyed strong support from Hispanic voters while being reelected in 2012.

Prominent supporters of the proposal were as diverse as the powerful AFL-CIO labor union and the pro-business U.S. Chamber of Commerce. There was more momentum than there had been for large immigration changes that fizzled in 2006 and 2007 under President George W. Bush.

Still, Republican House Speaker John Boehner gauged support for the Gang of Eight bill in the GOP-controlled chamber in January 2014 and said too many lawmakers distrusted the Obama administration. By that summer, the bill was dead.

Obama then created a program protecting from deportation migrants brought illegally to the U.S. as children. The Supreme Court has previously upheld it, but the court's relatively recent 6-3 conservative majority could pose long-term threats.

Years after the creation of Obama's program, President Donald Trump called for walling off all of the nation's 2,000-mile southern border, and his administration separated migrant children from their parents and made migrants wait in Mexico while seeking U.S. asylum.

Biden endorsed a sweeping immigration package on his Inauguration Day, but it went nowhere in Congress. His administration has since loosened some Trump immigration policies and tightened others, even as his party has seen Republican support rise among Hispanic voters.

Officials have continued to enforce Title 42 pandemic-era health restrictions that allowed for migrants seeking U.S. asylum to be quickly expelled, though they are set to expire May 11. The Biden White House is also considering placing migrant families in detention centers while they wait for their asylum cases, something the Obama and Trump administrations did.

Gil Kerlikowske, who was commissioner of U.S. Customs and Border Protection under Obama, said "a lot of things are coming together at once," including Title 42 possibly ending, a spike in the number of South American migrants crossing through the treacherous rainforests of the Darian Gap between Colombia and Panama, and a 2024 presidential election ratcheting up the political pressure.

"Two and a half years into the administration, there really hasn't been any announcement of what is our immigration policy," Kerlikowske said. "Getting laws passed is almost impossible. But what's been the policy?"

The League of United Latin American Citizens is so desperate for meaningful progress that it has begun advocating for a full moratorium of up to six months on U.S. asylum as a way of calming things at the border. Its president, Domingo Garcia, said that migrants know they are processed and allowed to remain in the U.S. for years fighting for asylum in court, and that authorities need to "turn off the faucet" to help strained border cities.

"We need a total reset," said Garcia, whose group is the nation's oldest Latino civil rights organization. "I think that people on the far left are just as wrong as those who believe they should close the border and let no one in."

Biden's administration announced in early January that it would admit up to 30,000 people a month from Cuba, Haiti, Nicaragua and Venezuela for two years with authorization to work and make it easier to apply online. Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas argues that the new rules are designed to weaken cartels who help migrants cross into the U.S. illegally.

Mayorkas said recently that officials aim to create "lawful, safe and orderly pathways for people to reach the United States to claim asylum and to cut out the smuggling organizations."

It appears to be working, for now. After federal authorities detained migrants more than 2.5 million times at the southern border in 2022 — including more than 250,000 in December, the highest monthly total on record — the number of encounters with migrants plummeted during the first two months of this year.

But fewer crossings has created a backlog of thousands of migrants hoping to seek U.S. asylum waiting on the Mexican side of the border. Last month's fire at a Mexican government facility began amid a protest by migrants fearing deportation. Some of those being held said they'd been attempting to apply online when they were rounded up by Mexican authorities.

Meanwhile, warmer months often see major increases in the number of migrants at the U.S. border. And activists say that Biden has sent mixed signals by continuing to enforce Title 42 and considering reopening family detention centers — a possibility that even top Democrats are now decrying.

"We urge you to learn from the mistakes of your predecessors and abandon any plans to implement this failed policy," Schumer and 17 other Senate Democrats recently wrote in a letter to Biden that called family detention policies "morally reprehensible and ineffective as an immigration management tool."

Republicans have blasted Biden's "border crisis" and, since Trump's rise, made gains among voters in some heavily Latino areas. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, widely expected to be the leading alternative to Trump in next year's Republican presidential primary, flew migrants from Texas to Martha's Vineyard in Massachusetts, arguing that Democrats around the country were ignoring the crush of migrants on the U.S.-Mexico border.

In Miami, Nery Lopez was among a group of activists who recently mobilized to oppose a state bill that would punish people who transport migrants in the country illegally. Now 27, she was brought to the U.S. as a 4-year-old from Mexico and is protected from deportation by the Obama-era program.

Lopez said advocates were counting on the Biden administration to counter Republicans' hard-line immigration policies.

"People feel defeated. I feel defeated," she said. "It's like we are going into the same cycle."

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Weissert reported from Washington.