FOR A moment last week, it looked as though the ever-diminishing moderate wing of the Republican Party would assert itself after years of being pushed around by radical right-wingers and a GOP establishment scared of the extremists. But when the chips were down, the moderate bloc in the House could not gather the last few signatures it needed to force a vote on mainstream bills to protect the “dreamers,” immigrants who came to this country as children and now are at risk of deportation. Among those who failed to sign was Rep. Barbara Comstock (R-Va.), who by sticking with House leadership discredited the moderate image she has cultivated in her Northern Virginia district.

House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) ended the moderates’ gambit to force a vote on relatively clean dreamers bills, which the vast majority of Americans support, by promising that the House would vote on two other bills more heavily influenced by the Republican Party’s increasingly toxic immigration politics.

One bill, written by House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.) and House Homeland Security Committee Chairman Michael McCaul (R-Tex.), would sharply reduce legal immigration and crack down on undocumented immigrants, including by penalizing cities whose police forces decline to serve federal immigration authorities. For all that, people covered by the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program would get only a three-year renewable work permit — not a pathway to citizenship. In short, Mr. Goodlatte’s bill is anti- ­immigrant fervor distilled into reactionary policy. It will probably fail to pass even the GOP-dominated House.

Columnist Elizabeth Bruenig takes issue with the way Attorney General Jeff Sessions is using scripture to justify separating families at the border. (Gillian Brockell/The Washington Post)

The other bill to get a vote is a package Mr. Ryan brokered. According to a draft, it would offer dreamers a long pathway to citizenship in return for billions of dollars for President Trump’s border-wall plan, a smaller reduction in legal immigration and substantial new immigration enforcement. It would also end the Trump administration’s inhumane separation of children from parents at the border.

This package would be better than the Goodlatte bill, while still tilting heavily in favor of Trumpian restrictionists, with its wasteful wall money and shifts in the legal immigration system. Even so, the restrictionists have rallied against it, and Mr. Trump has sent mixed signals about it. It, too, is likely to fail. House Democrats will not flock to the Ryan plan, and there probably are not enough House Republicans left who would embrace it.

On the merits, the obvious Trump-era compromise has long been protections for dreamers in return for some wall money. If Republicans want to help the dreamers, as so many have long insisted they do, they should not need a ransom for it.

As all of this plays out, remember that a generation of immigrants that has known no country but the United States continues to suffer in unnecessary policy limbo. If both bills fail, the moderates can and should resurrect their effort to force votes on better bills. Republican leaders might like this issue to disappear from the legislative calendar for the next few months, but the unacceptable reality on the ground cannot be wished away.

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