Why the House GOP Can’t Avoid More Immigration Fights

After Wednesday’s legislative failure, Republican leaders would rather move on to other topics.

Rep. Carlos Curbelo (center), accompanied by Rep. Jeff Denham, at a news conference Wednesday after the Republican-led House rejected a far-ranging immigration bill despite its eleventh-hour endorsement by President Trump.
AP Photo/Andrew Harnik
June 27, 2018, 8 p.m.

After the embarrassing failure of their compromise Republican-only immigration bill, House GOP leaders may want nothing more than to leave the issue alone. Unfortunately, the White House, the courts, and indeed, their rank-and-file members may not let them.

Over the next several months, leaders may be forced back into the fray by a recent court decision on family separation, a looming court case on the status of immigrants who came to the country illegally as children, and the expiration of temporary protected status for immigrants from some countries. That’s not to mention that members of Congress have promised to keep pushing pet immigration policies, and President Trump could instigate another immigration fight by demanding more money for a border wall during September’s spending showdown.

Rep. Tom Cole said that after only 121 Republicans voted for a bill that leaders have spent weeks trying to craft, it may be time to move on to other issues, such as appropriations bills.

“This was an effort worth trying, so I don’t begrudge anybody. But in the absence of some obvious path forward, which I don’t see, we need to get back to work and start moving product, get these defense appropriations bills done and see other product,” he said.

Yet even the appropriations process holds immigration land mines. Cole said Trump told appropriators at a Tuesday meeting that he wants $5 billion in border-wall funding this year, which is sure to inflame debate around a bill that typically has to pass with bipartisan votes.

Other members want to keep moving separate immigration legislation. House Agriculture Committee Chairman Mike Conaway, for instance, said he still wants leadership to uphold its promise to vote on a bill dealing with agricultural visas. He said that in exchange for their support on the comprehensive bill, leadership promised members a vote in July on a bill that would enforce use of E-Verify, a system whereby companies can check whether employees have legal status, and expand temporary agricultural and nonagricultural work visas.

Leaders considered adding such policies into the compromise bill late in the process, but demurred after hearing from members, so Conaway said he doesn’t buy any assertion that the promise is no longer valid because the bill failed.

“Had they included that in this bill, then maybe they could argue that, but I’m going to argue that we still need a stand-alone vote,” he said.

House Freedom Caucus Chairman Mark Meadows, meanwhile, said he would like to see Congress move a stand-alone bill to address the administration’s policy of separating children from immigrant parents who are apprehended at the border—even though Trump signed an executive action temporarily halting the process.

Meadows said the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals issue and border security should be shelved for the time being because they’re too controversial, but Congress should look at family separation, asylum, and how human traffickers are treated from different countries south of the border.

“We should come back together and find a bill that will pass,” he said. “Preferably a narrow-scope bill where you don’t have the difficulties.”

Cole said leaders were considering doing so until as recently as Tuesday evening, when a California federal judge ruled that the administration must stop separating families and must reunite those already separated, a decision Cole said “really murked things up.” Now, he said leaders want to give the administration the upcoming recess week to think of a coherent strategy to rebut the court so they don’t put something on the floor that Trump wouldn’t want.

“We thought we might see something on the family-breakup issue this week, but I’m told that court ruling—it’s not clear yet, it hasn’t been analyzed, and the administration itself isn’t certain what it wants from us. They’re going to try to give them the break to think that through and then we might do something smaller-scale,” he said. “I don’t think we’re going to proceed on the president’s signature issue without some guidance as to what the president actually wants.”

Still, other members see a different court ruling as a spur to action: A Texas judge will hold a hearing July 17 on whether he should end the DACA program because it is beyond the legal scope of the executive branch, and some predict it will make its way to the Supreme Court.

Rep. Jeff Denham and his fellow moderate members held a press conference after the failure of the immigration bill they helped negotiate and noted they will keep pushing for legislation. Denham said that court case may spur them to act.

“Over the next several months there’s going to be a lot of pressure and even leverage to force a bipartisan solution,” Denham said.

Rep. Carlos Curbelo, a fellow moderate, indicated they are keeping all their options on the table to force a vote, including a discharge petition, which could force legislation to the floor if enough members sign.

“We’re keeping all our options on the table. All our legislative tools will be on the table, and I think we’ve demonstrated we’re willing to talk to anyone,” he said.

Still, Rep. Mike Coffman admitted the group was stymied when a few members who agreed to sign on to the petition told leaders that just the act of having a vote satisfied their reasons for signing it and so they wouldn’t do so again. Also complicating that effort is the fact that such petitions can only be heard on the fourth Monday of every month. Only two such Mondays fall on the legislative calendar before the end of the year.

Curbelo pointed to expiring temporary protected designations as an inflection point. The tag allows immigrants to stay in the U.S. if their home country is designated too dangerous to return to. People from Somalia, Sudan, and Yemen will lose their designations later this year unless the administration acts, and other Middle Eastern and South and Central American immigrants’ designations expire next year.

“We worked intensely to get that included [in the compromise bill], and while we haven’t succeeded yet, a lot of members didn’t even know what TPS was … so a lot of good has come from this already,” Curbelo said.

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