With Budget Deal Behind Them, Senators Open Immigration Debate

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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

With a budget deal behind them, today, the Senate begins open debate on immigration and the fate of the young, undocumented immigrants known as the DREAMers. Back in September, you'll remember President Trump announced the end of the DACA program, or Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, the temporary status given to the DREAMers. Lawmakers now have until March 5 to pass a permanent solution. Here's Arizona Senator Jeff Flake speaking yesterday on NBC.

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JEFF FLAKE: We're going to have something in the Senate that we haven't had in a while. It's a real debate on an issue where we really don't know what the outcome is going to be.

MARTIN: One outcome could be that immigration gets its first real overhaul in decades. Republican Senator James Lankford of Oklahoma joins us now. He's part of a group of senators introducing a bill today. Senator, thanks so much for being with us.

JAMES LANKFORD: Glad to be able to be with you.

MARTIN: So your bill is pretty much along the lines of what the White House has been proposing, this four-point plan including a path to citizenship for the DREAMers, $25 billion for a border wall, limits to so-called chain migration - family-based immigration - and changes to the green card lottery. But you still need Democrats to pass this thing. Even fellow Republicans like Jeff Flake and Lindsey Graham have said the president's proposal, your proposal, essentially, is not going to fly. How do you get the votes you need?

LANKFORD: Well, as Jeff Flake had mentioned before yesterday - is that this is a rare moment to actually put things on the floor, actually have open debate, bring amendments to the floor and say, let's see if we can work through the process. There's tremendous diversity of opinion across the country of how you handle the immigration issues, and it's not always Republican-Democrat. Sometimes, it's a regional issue. Sometimes, it's dealing specifically with those students that are in DACA. But this particular proposal will not only give citizenship to 1.8 million people. It does a lot more than just a border wall.

This is really a system of both laws and of enforcement along the border and then also, obviously, security barriers in sites where it's needed. Technology in some places, a wall in some places where it's needed - but to also deal with the very relevant issue of family reunification. Right now it takes about 20 years to be able to come through the legal process. Because of that 20-year backlog, it actually incentivizes more illegal immigration. We'd like to be able to bring that down to a rational number.

MARTIN: So this is an open debate. So where would you be willing to concede today?

LANKFORD: Well, actually, you and I aren't debating this and determining what the law is. We'll get a chance to go on the Senate floor. There'll be lots of amendments that'll go through it. But I would say that my main focus is those four areas of the visa lottery, the family reunification, of course, having that very long backlog, border security and naturalization for those individuals that are DACA and DACA-eligible. Those will be the four corners of it. The House has already said those four things have to be there. The White House has already said those four things have to be there. There's a lot of variety within those four, but those four have to be there for it to actually make law, not just pass a bill in the Senate.

MARTIN: You also sit on the Senate intelligence committee. Tomorrow, you've got the heads of the CIA, FBI, the director of National Intelligence, the NSA director, among others, testifying about worldwide threats. Will you ask them if the U.S. is safe from Russian interference in elections that we're anticipating this fall?

LANKFORD: That will certainly be a part of it. The worldwide threats deals with not only terrorism from around the world in multiple regions, the movement of ISIS as they have moved out of Syria and Iraq and are trying to form in other places. We'll talk about counternarcotics. That's one of the areas of worldwide threats that we lose track of. Sixty-four thousand Americans last year died from overdose. Most of those came through Mexico or from Mexico into the United States. That is a very real threat.

MARTIN: Let me ask you, though, Senator, do you believe that enough has been done to make sure that the U.S. election is not as vulnerable as it was in 2016?

LANKFORD: No, not enough has been done yet, but a lot of progress has been made. I actually met with the director of DHS and some of the staff of DHS just last week to talk about the election security issues. They're working on security clearances. They're working on getting information faster to states because states run elections. It's exceptionally important that when we pick up information about any nation-state or any individual trying to attack our election systems, it gets immediately to those states. They have already begun very aggressive work on that.

MARTIN: Let me ask one more question. The president has decided not to release - this is the Schiff memo, as it's called, on the Russia probe, at least in its current form. This is the Democratic memo that came out in response to the Nunes memo alleging bias at the FBI. So the president has released the Republican memo, did not release the Democratic memo. Do you support that choice?

LANKFORD: You know, I've not seen the memo either way, obviously, being in Senate intelligence. This is a House product. It is my understanding the White House said that this has too much information, had sources and methods. And if the House Democrats will remove some of that classified information - that they will release that. So I'm sure they're working through the process. There's no way they can't release both sides of information. But we've got to be able to make sure that sources and methods are protected, as well. So I would expect there to be a Democratic memo released within days.

MARTIN: Some of your Republican colleagues have said they want a special counsel appointed to investigate bias within the FBI. Do you think that's a good idea? Just briefly?

LANKFORD: I don't think that's warranted right now, but there's clearly - there was some bias that was there, what we've seen from printed documents already. So let's clear that up, see if they can do it internally. If not, we'll have to push that up.

MARTIN: Senator James Lankford of Oklahoma, thanks for your time this morning.

LANKFORD: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.