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The Senate Project: Sens. Portman and Murphy on Immigration Reform

This week, Sens. Chris Murphy (D-CT) and Rob Portman (R-OH) participated in the second of The Senate Project debate series, organized by BPC, the Orrin G. Hatch Foundation, and the Edward M. Kennedy Institute for the United States Senate. The senators discussed issues on which Congress is deeply divided including the economy and inflation, gun control, reproductive rights, and immigration and border security. Their conversation on immigration highlighted openings for bipartisanship including addressing national security needs on the border and the economic growth opportunities that immigration offers. The following are key takeaways from the immigration portion of the debate.

Encounter Numbers and Security on the Southern Border:

Sen. Portman opened the topic of immigration by discussing the rise in migrant encounters during this fiscal year and the need for further security measures at the southern border. Both senators discussed Title 42, with Sen. Murphy noting that the increase in encounters is in part due to higher levels of recidivism encouraged by the policy. The senators agreed that monitoring the illicit flows of goods and people is a priority for border security. Sen. Portman noted the illicit flow of goods crossing the border including fentanyl, guns, and human smuggling, citing the security risks they pose to the United States and to migrants. Sen. Murphy discussed technological investments at ports of entry, where 90% of illegal goods flow, to combat illicit trades, pointing out investments the Biden administration has made and urging continued investment in border security technology. BPC addresses these exact issues in a May 2021 report on a new border management and security policy framework, focusing on the different components needed to separate and expedite processing of asylum-seeking arrivals from other security activities focused on threats posed by criminals, drugs, and terrorism.

Asylum Reform:

On the issue of asylum, the senators agreed that the asylum system needs reform. Sen. Portman noted that the current asylum system has a backlog of 1.5 million cases, and Sen. Murphy remarked on recent measures by the Biden administration to address that backlog. Both senators said that the current system often causes migrants to take dangerous routes to the border, such as those through the Sonora desert, or rely on human smugglers to get to the U.S. and Mexico border. Sen. Portman remarked that the current system is not humane, with Sen. Murphy agreeing and underscoring that the two parties need to work together on asylum reform. As BPC points out in a 2019 analysis, the current system leaves us woefully unprepared to manage large humanitarian flows.

Legal Immigration Reform:

Both senators noted that immigrants are critical to the economic growth of the U.S. Sen. Murphy noted that America relies on immigrants, with Sen. Portman agreeing that there needs to be expansions in the legal immigration system. The senators discussed bipartisan efforts to expand visa access, address the backlog of STEM Ph.D.s, and meet American workforce needs through immigration—all issues which BPC advocates for in our recent report, Immigrant Entrepreneurship: Economic Potential and Obstacles to Success. The report, which issues recommendations to maximize immigrants’ economic contributions, finds that a lack of an immigrant visa allowing entrepreneurs to move to or remain in the U.S. presents a major obstacle to their success.


While immigration remains a hotly contested political issue, Sens. Murphy and Portman showed that there are bipartisan areas of agreement that could present a starting point for immigration reform.

BPC’s Immigration Project has long researched, advocated for, and put forth recommendations for those areas of agreement to provide timely and up to date information that offer a path for bipartisan immigration reform. The senators agreed that any effort at immigration reform must strike a necessary balance between reducing security threats and embracing opportunity, with each senator highlighting that humane immigration reform is necessary for both national security and national growth.

The U.S. immigration system no longer functions as intended, making reform a long overdue effort that can be achieved through various, wide-ranging areas of bipartisan consensus. As previous BPC polling and our recent reports show, economic-based legal immigration presents a viable path forward for reform. We look forward to working with the broader immigration community and members of Congress to make reform a reality.

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