Donald Trump’s new executive orders on immigration raise an important question on Capitol Hill: Does his push to build a border wall mean that the White House is taking a sledgehammer to any prospects for bipartisan immigration reform?
Democrats reacted with outrage as Trump issued orders aimed at spurring construction of his long-promised wall on the Mexican border, deporting undocumented immigrants who have committed crimes, and cutting funding to so-called sanctuary cities that refuse to help federal officials crack down on undocumented immigrants.
“Americans deserve a real fix to our broken immigration system that strengthens border security, protects workers, and treats immigrants fairly. Building a wall on our border and fear in our hearts will not move this nation forward,” said Sen. Dick Durbin, the minority whip.
Durbin is working with GOP Sen. Lindsey Graham to push for protecting undocumented people who came to the states when they were kids from deportation.
But while the anger is clear, less certain is whether the orders leave political space for negotiations over several other critical immigration issues that have potential for bipartisan cooperation, such as bolstering the H-1B Visa program for high-skilled foreign workers.
John Feehery, a lobbyist and former GOP leadership aide, said Trump’s stances on immigration could break multiple ways on Capitol Hill when it comes to employers’ access to high-skilled foreign workers, a topic of intense interest to Silicon Valley.
“The Trump administration will be even more hostile to this work-visa program than [President Obama’s Labor Secretary] Tom Perez was. I don’t know how Congress reacts to that,” said Feehery, who lobbies on immigration issues, in an email.
“They can be more bipartisan in order to overcome Trump opposition or they can be split down the middle and programs just die, leading to some major issues for the tech industry,” he said.
One Democratic leadership aide expressed hope that Trump’s orders could spur action on Capitol Hill.
“They bring new urgency for bipartisan action,” the aide said. “Because Republicans don’t trust the president either.”
While it’s highly unclear whether any type of broader immigration measures can gain traction, one Senate GOP aide said Trump’s action bolsters Republicans.
“For the longest time Republicans have been negotiating from a position of weakness on this issue. This is Trump demoing that we can negotiate from a position of strength,” the aide said. “Donald Trump has just proven to them that they are not going to get all that they want.”
The aide said the orders put the ball in Democrats’ court as to whether they want to use Trump’s actions as campaign-trail fodder for the next two years, or seek work on legislation that includes the Democratic priority of some kind of legal status for undocumented people—but on the GOP’s terms for how to tackle border security first.
“It’s up to them to start sounding reasonable, and given what the president has just done, border security is part of being reasonable. That is the baseline,” the GOP aide said.
One senior Democrat said lawmakers should dust off the bipartisan legislation that cleared the Senate under Democratic control in 2013 that included various border-security measures but overall isn’t as hard-line as Trump’s immigration platform, while also creating a 13-year path to citizenship for millions of undocumented residents.
That measure also boosted the number of visas for high-skilled workers and created a new guest-visa program for lower-skilled workers, among many other provisions.
“If President Trump is serious about securing our borders and modernizing our immigration system, I would suggest he look to the bipartisan, comprehensive immigration reforms passed by the Senate in 2013. The problems plaguing our immigration system are complex, demanding responsible and comprehensive reforms,” said Sen. Pat Leahy, the top Democrat on the Senate Appropriations Committee.
A senior official with the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which backed the 2013 compromise, said the group still hopes to work with Congress.
“It is widely accepted that we need increased border security and there are several ways to achieve it. The Chamber believes that increased border security is one part of a broader puzzle that needs to be solved to address the immigration issues in this country,” said Randy Johnson, the group’s senior vice president of labor, immigration, and employee benefits.
“We look forward to working with the Congress and the new administration and engaging in a robust debate on these issues in the future,” he said in a statement.
But thus far immigration is not a GOP priority in either chamber this year beyond plans to provide money for Trump’s planned border wall.
Trump’s orders signal that he’s committed to implementing his hard-line immigration positions that animated his campaign. And Trump’s aggressive moves—not to mention his protectionist, populist inauguration speech—reflect the influence of top adviser Stephen Bannon, who has expressed unease about immigrants’ strong representation in Silicon Valley, and attorney general nominee Jeff Sessions.
And there’s likely more to come soon.
The Associated Press reports that a draft of a separate Trump order would suspend issuing visas to citizens of seven Muslim-majority countries for at least 30 days.
Still, one House Republican told reporters Wednesday that there’s a need for broader immigration legislation that goes beyond just walls and deportations.
“It’s not just about the wall. It’s not just about border security. Once we have that done, we need to go to the second and third iterations. How do we fix our immigration system so that in 20, 30 years we’re not back here again?” Rep. Adam Kinzinger told reporters at the GOP retreat in Philadelphia.
“And how do we deal with the folks that are here? You’re not going to round up and deport 15 million people. You have to have some kind of a pathway to legalization,” he added.
Across Capitol Hill, GOP Sen. Thom Tillis has begun speaking with colleagues from both parties to build support for a broad set of immigration measures, including some form of legal status for immigrants already here, that would be tackled in incremental stages, The Wall Street Journal reported this week.
For now, however, all that’s clear is that the orders have inflamed tensions between Trump and Democrats, who blasted the White House in strong terms Wednesday.
“As far as the wall is concerned, I suspect that a lot of Trump supporters would be just as happy with a big statue of a middle finger pointed south, because both that and a wall are about equally effective as national security strategies,” said Democratic Rep. Luis V. Gutiérrez, who heads the immigration task force for the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, in a lengthy statement on Trump’s actions.
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