Though President Trump’s self-imposed immigration deadline of March 5 arrived with no action, House Republican leaders are still eyeing changes to their partisan immigration bill in hopes that they can finesse the legislation through their chamber.
Among the changes being considered is widening the portion of the bill that grants protected status to immigrants who came to the country illegally as children to include roughly 1 million more immigrants.
Homeland Security Committee Chairman Michael McCaul, a lead sponsor of the bill with Judiciary Chairman Bob Goodlatte, said some Republican members want leadership to grant the protected status to the estimated 1.8 million people who came to the country illegally as children, not just the roughly 800,000 who signed up for President Obama’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program.
“There’s people who signed up for DACA vs. DACA-eligible,” McCaul said. “We’re talking about, ‘Should we expand it? What’s it going to look like?’ … Some don’t like that idea at all, but some do.”
Shielding the estimated 1.8 million immigrants would put the bill in line with what the Trump administration has proposed, and it could help leaders bring more Republicans from moderate districts into the fold. However, it is unclear if widening the bill’s scope would draw the ire of conservatives and immigration hard-liners, whose votes would be needed to pass any partisan immigration bill in the House.
“I like the way the bill is now,” said Rep. Jim Jordan, a member of the House Freedom Caucus.
House leaders are also looking at making changes to the agricultural guest-worker portion of the bill, which has presented problems for members who represent farm-heavy districts.
The original bill requires immigrant workers to leave the country for up to 45 days before they can return legally with a guest-worker visa. But Agriculture Committee Chairman Mike Conaway said he is working with Goodlatte to shorten that so-called touchback time to as little as a day or two.
Conaway said he is exploring legislative language that would mandate that workers take paperwork to a U.S. embassy or consulate anywhere outside of the country—even as close as Mexico or Canada—where they can, with the help of their employer, get a stamp allowing them back in.
“The touchback, that’s going to be in there, but I want to make it happen at a point where it’s pretty automatic—you can call ahead to the consulate, make an appointment, kind of thing,” he said. “Go to Tijuana, go to the consulate, stamp it—the idea is to have that so smooth, so little to be done.”
Any changes would need the approval of agricultural groups, many of whom have so far opposed the legislation. Rep. Dennis Ross said he cannot support the legislation until he knows farmers in his Florida district are comfortable with it, especially since it would impose E-Verify, a government program that allows employers to make sure their workers are legal.
“If they’re going to force-feed E-verify on you and you’re going to have to be a policeman to see if these people are legal, then you better give me a pool of labor that I can get to meet my demand so I can produce,” Ross said. “I can’t go back to my agriculture community and say, ‘Trust me on this one, because leadership said trust me.’”
Even though the bill is at a standstill, conservatives have been pleased with leadership’s posture so far. House Freedom Caucus Chairman Mark Meadows, who last month suggested there could be repercussions for leaders if they do not try hard enough to pass the Goodlatte bill, said he approves their strategy of starting with the most conservative bill and working their way backwards to get votes.
“I think you start with the Goodlatte framework and you move it to the left until you get to 218,” he said. “Leadership‘s whipping it much harder than I would have anticipated a week or two ago.”
Still, for some moderate members, no amount of movement to the left could salvage the bill. Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart said the Goodlatte-McCaul framework is too flawed and too comprehensive. He said he wants to start the process over by focusing only on the four immigration policies Trump has demanded, but it is impossible to do so while the hard-line bill is still out there as the leadership-preferred vehicle.
“I think there are other alternatives, but while this thing is out there, we’re like moths bumping into a light,” he said. “The strategy of doing a Republican-only bill while we know it requires 60 votes in the Senate is just another futile effort. I think it’s pretty clear the votes aren’t there. They’ve been trying for a long time now to push this, but it has so many issues.”
Meadows, however, countered that there are more conservative-leaning members in the House Republican Conference, using moderate Rep. Leonard Lance as an example.
“I can applaud a Leonard Lance who has a very substantially different district than I have. If he were to vote for me he wouldn’t be representing his district,” Meadows said. “But Leonard’s district doesn’t represent the majority of the majority. Having his input is critical, but it’s not as critical as having the input of 190 others.”
McCaul said his hope is to work out the differences and hold a vote by the end of March.