GOP Faces Immigration Balancing Act

Leaders are mulling a narrow fix to the DACA problem, but many members want to tackle a broader reform package.

House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, Speaker Paul Ryan, and Rep. Michael McCaul
AP Photo/Andrew Harnik
Daniel Newhauser
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Daniel Newhauser
Sept. 13, 2017, 8 p.m.

Congressional Republican leaders are facing a Goldilocks problem on immigration.

Construct a bill too narrow, and one side or the other will complain they didn’t get a win. Present a bill too wide-ranging to Congress and the issues will, as House Speaker Paul Ryan said Wednesday, “collapse under their own weight.”

Making things more urgent, President Trump has given Congress only six months to get the issue just right—a feat Congress hasn’t been able to accomplish in nearly a decade.

Capitol Hill was abuzz on Wednesday with talk of a potential legislative fix granting legal status to the roughly 800,000 people who immigrated here illegally when they were minors, and to whom President Obama granted protections through executive fiat.

Yet the path forward on the legislation is murky. Both Republicans and Democrats are facing headwinds from their political bases, time constraints from the congressional schedule, and a White House that seems willing to negotiate around congressional Republicans.

From a GOP leadership perspective, the path to compromise is fairly simple: Democrats get a codification of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, while Republicans get something that could feasibly be called a border-security wall, thereby fulfilling a Trump campaign promise.

“It makes perfect sense to fix the source of the problem, the cause, while we deal with the symptom of the problem, the DACA issue, so that we don’t end up with a DACA problem 10 years from now,” Ryan said during an AP Newsmakers interview. “That’s the kind of conversation and consensus we can land on.”

Yet Trump threw a curveball into the discussion Wednesday afternoon when he told a group of members during a White House meeting that he also wants to include a bill from Sens. David Perdue and Tom Cotton restricting legal immigration to focus on high-skilled work, according to Democratic Rep. Henry Cuellar.

“We said, ‘We need to have the Dream Act,’ and he said, ‘Yes,’” Cuellar said of Trump. “He said, ‘We need some sort of border security,’ and then he added, ‘No wall. … We’ll put the wall on another bill.’ … But then when he mentioned the Perdue-Cotton bill, which has certain caps on legal [immigration], that might be an issue.”

Ryan has said he supports that bill, but has wanted to keep it out of the current discussions.

And while Ryan has said border-security funding is a must-have in this legislation, Marc Short, Trump’s top legislative aide, said during a breakfast this week hosted by The Christian Science Monitor that a wall may not necessarily make or break this deal because he doesn’t want to “bind ourselves into a construct that makes reaching a conclusion on DACA impossible.”

The statement undercut Ryan’s position, just a week after Trump publicly undercut Ryan and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell by striking a debt-limit deal with Democrats. Such an environment makes it difficult for GOP leaders to negotiate.

Still, some Democrats saw a boon in Short’s comments. Cuellar, who represents a border district in Texas, said a deal could be struck if the Trump administration pares down its definition of a wall.

“I think they fudged already on the wall. I think they will give that up now, as long as we put a good presence of Border Patrol, maybe National Guard, … cameras, sensors, technology,” Cuellar said. “We want to see personnel, we want to see technology. No wall. … You put up a 10-foot wall, somebody’s going to come up with an 11-foot ladder.”

But Cuellar also had another ask: increased enforcement on the Mexico-Guatemala border, where many South and Central American immigrants cross first.

So while Ryan has tried to make his case for a fairly narrow bill, others in his conference, on the Democratic side, and now in the White House have already begun ticking off a wish list of other items that should be included in the bill.

That is a problem for Ryan, who is more acutely aware than many members that when it comes to immigration, the bigger the bill, the smaller the chance it passes. Before he became speaker, he worked with a bipartisan group on a closely guarded immigration bill that ultimately did collapse under its own weight.

That lesson was not universal, however. Rep. Raul Labrador, another member of that group, spoke up in a House GOP meeting Wednesday to argue for E-Verify and visa issues being included in the talks, as well.

In fact, in an odd bit of role reversal, it is now leadership that wants to do a small-bore immigration measure and conservatives who are asking about a more wide-ranging solution. Several members of the House Freedom Caucus said Wednesday that they are interested in taking on more than just DACA and border security, and that they are working amongst themselves on a bill to that end.

“This is a bigger debate than just DACA and the border wall,” Freedom Caucus Chairman Mark Meadows said. “The speaker has made a commitment to conservatives, before he became speaker, that he wouldn’t bring anything to the floor on immigration that didn’t have the majority of the majority. That gives a comfort in terms of allowing us to negotiate in good faith.”

Rep. Scott Perry added that he is working on a bill that includes transitioning the immigration system from chain migration to merit-based migration, an effort that mirrors a bill from Sen. Cotton.

“If we’re going to be forced to accept DACA anyhow—which we are, let’s face it—we’ve got to have something on the other hand of that ledger,” Perry said.

Meanwhile, some Democrats are treading cautiously while negotiating with Trump. Rep. Gerald Connolly said his party has to be careful when working with the president.

“Our base is so riled up about Trump that any agreement of any kind will have to be very carefully presented. Because it’s not that they want dysfunction, it’s that they have zero trust in this president,” he said.

Others, however, believe the DACA issue is so pressing that doing nothing would be an abdication of responsibility. Rep. Brad Sherman, for instance, said he represents tens of thousands of DACA recipients in his Los Angeles district.

“There are political activists that don’t have a constituent-service responsibility. I deal with people,” Sherman said. “We have called detention centers on behalf of families, and until someone does that they shouldn’t tell me not to compromise.”

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