The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Early rift over immigration exposes House GOP’s tough path to consensus

Republicans won’t bring an immigration bill to the floor this week after members raised concerns about its scope and the process

A bill proposed by Rep. Chip Roy (R-Tex.), center, would require U.S. officials to bar migrants at the border if they cannot be processed. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

House Republicans’ attempt to bring a border security bill to the floor as early as this week was thwarted after backlash from more moderate Republicans, delaying not only a pledge Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) made to a handful of lawmakers but also the fulfillment of a key campaign promise to a Republican base eager for tougher immigration laws.

The bill, introduced by Rep. Chip Roy (R-Tex.) and co-sponsored by 58 Republicans, would empower the Homeland Security secretary — currently Alejandro Mayorkas — to unilaterally bar all undocumented migrants from entering the United States through any point of entry if the secretary deems it necessary to reestablish “operational control” of the border. If immigration agencies cannot, for any reason, process undocumented migrants according to legal procedures, a similar response by the secretary would be required. If the secretary does not follow through, the bill would provide state attorneys general the authority to sue the federal government.

But the scope of the three-page bill has rattled dozens of House Republicans, many of whom worry it would prevent migrants and unaccompanied children fleeing violence from seeking asylum in the United States — a traditionally protected tenet of the country’s immigration laws. Rep. Tony Gonzales (R-Tex.), who represents the largest stretch of the U.S.-Mexico border of any lawmaker, is one of two Republicans who have taken the lead in opposing the bill.

Republicans can only afford to lose four votes to pass any legislation through their razor-thin majority without help from Democrats. The margin recently decreased to three after Rep. Greg Steube (R-Fla.) suffered injuries after a fall last week, making it unclear when he could return to Washington.

House Majority Leader Steve Scalise (R-La.) previewed in December Republicans’ intention to bring “meaningful, ‘ready-to-go’ legislation,” including the border security bill, to the floor in the first two weeks after they took control of the House. McCarthy then went further, pledging to fast-track the bill’s consideration as part of a “gentlemen’s agreement” earlier this month that won over most of the 21 holdouts, including Roy, who were blocking him from becoming speaker. Opposition from moderates has scuttled those plans.

“We can’t allow the Republican Party to be hijacked,” Gonzales said, referencing his colleagues pushing the legislation. “Trying to ban legitimate asylum claims — one, it’s not Christian, and two, to me, it’s very anti-American. So a lot is at stake.”

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The bill in its current form likely would never be considered by the Democratic-controlled Senate. But the backlash has exposed the deep divisions over border security that continue to plague the party even though Republicans across the spectrum have sharply criticized the Biden administration’s approach to the issue.

Rep. Don Bacon (R-Neb.) and two other members of the Main Street Caucus, a group of self-described pragmatic Republicans, secured a commitment from McCarthy’s aides on Friday that the bill would go back to the House Homeland Security Committee rather than being fast-tracked to the floor, according to Bacon.

“We’re convinced that if it goes through committee, some of the areas that we’re worried about, like asylum rules, will hopefully get fixed or improved,” he said.

Debate over what the bill proposes

Some Republican lawmakers are focused on measures to aid border communities overwhelmed by migrants, while more conservative lawmakers have pushed to immediately halt the historic flow of migrants entering through the U.S.-Mexico border until a wall is built. The disagreements threaten House Republicans’ ability to fulfill campaign pledges that they would pass legislation securing the border that could also stem the influx of fentanyl into the U.S.

Republicans have highlighted the record number of people crossing the U.S.-Mexico border as a contrast between them and the Biden administration, going as far as threatening to impeach Mayorkas and fighting to keep a pandemic-era border restriction that gives law enforcement the discretion to immediately expel migrants, including asylum seekers, by citing public health concerns.

But some House Republicans, especially those who were in Congress when previous immigration bills failed, have privately expressed skepticism that bipartisan immigration legislation could clear the House this Congress, pointing blame at far-right lawmakers who have criticized many bipartisan efforts as offering amnesty.

An immigration lawyer explains why advocates hope the law will be allowed to expire, and why others think it’s critical to addressing a crisis at the border. (Video: Rich Matthews/The Washington Post)

In response to the criticism from within his party, Roy said his bill would require law enforcement to detain migrants who claimed asylum but wouldn’t prevent migrants from doing so. He accused Gonzales of deliberately misrepresenting his bill by claiming it would effectively ban asylum claims.

“No one’s trying to ban asylum,” Roy said.

Immigration pivot shows Biden facing hard reality of border politics

The Border Safety and Security Act as written cites that DHS has the discretion to “suspend the entry of any non-U.S. nationals … during any period when DHS cannot detain such an individual or return the individual to a foreign country.” While the GOP majority overwhelmingly agrees on the need to curb illegal immigration and restructure the asylum process, the scope of the bill’s text suggests that any time detention centers are overwhelmed, the government could be required to immediately reject any undocumented immigrant, including asylum seekers, from entering the U.S. from any port of entry.

In a letter sent to lawmakers Tuesday and obtained by The Washington Post, El Paso Bishop Mark J. Seitz, the chairman of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops’ migration committee, echoed concerns and stressed that the bill “is antithetical to our nation’s moral principles.”

“If enacted, this legislation would sever access to protection for vulnerable persons on the move, including asylum seekers, unaccompanied children, victims of torture and victims of human trafficking who are fleeing life-threatening situations,” Seitz wrote.

Gonzales has led the charge against Roy’s bill, which also has the support of a dozen other Texas Republicans, while noting that claiming asylum can save unaccompanied children en route to the U.S., as well as Afghan and Ukrainian refugees. Rep. Maria Elvira Salazar (R-Fla.), who said she would also vote against the bill, called it unrealistic to handle the immigration crisis with such hard-line stances since it could negatively influence how legal immigration reforms are debated and instituted.

“Are we stupid? Come on. This country was based on good minds. Look at Albert Einstein, we gave him a piece of paper to come in,” Salazar said, referencing the German Jewish physicist who settled in the United States after Adolf Hitler came to power. “We are letting the Albert Einstein of this modern time slip away.”

McCarthy’s deal with the holdouts during his speaker fight has irked other Republicans, who privately have expressed that many concessions were made without consultation of the full GOP conference. It has empowered other factions outside of the hard-right to make demands of leadership when necessary given the majority’s slim margin.

Procedural objections

Besides overall concerns about the proposal, several Republicans were annoyed and called out the speaker holdouts for demanding that the House return to “regular order,” ensuring that every bill originates in committees, while also trying to force leadership’s hand in making Roy’s bill skip that lengthy process.

“That’s going to be very difficult, I think, for people to support [the bill]. It’s not going through traditional order to be vetted and to be amended in a way that all sides have a voice in this thing,” Rep. Nancy Mace (R-S.C.) said in an interview. “It will never pass the Senate if we’re only talking border security.”

Republicans could have sent the bill to the Rules Committee, which sets the parameters of debate for a bill before it hits the floor. But that committee has yet to be formally established, given the delay in electing McCarthy as speaker. Several bills related to law enforcement were delayed in consideration earlier this month because the committee did not exist yet to make minor tweaks.

Returning the bill to the Homeland Security Committee would allow it to be amended in a way that could appease some Republicans’ concerns. Many members who served on the committee last term were part of McCarthy’s task forces that took input from across the GOP’s ideological factions to create a framework for immigration reforms, which aides said could serve as a template to revise the bill.

Rep. Scott Perry (R-Pa.), who chairs the staunchly conservative House Freedom Caucus and is a co-sponsor of the bill, said he was open to moderates offering amendments to it.

“Border security is national security,” Perry said. “And if they want to explain to their constituents why they’re not interested in a secure border and a more secure nation, then God bless them.”

Biden immigration plan would restrict illegal border crossings

But Roy has been working to win over Republicans with concerns about the bill, and said he has no objections to moving the bill through the Homeland Security Committee rather than bringing it straight to the floor — as long as Republicans don’t try to weaken its provisions.

“We’re not gonna water this down with a bunch of exceptions that swallow the rule,” Roy said. “If these guys want to start making exceptions to the rule — the rule is secure the border, stop the flow [of migrants], allow people to claim asylum but they have to be detained while that process is being done — that’s the nonnegotiable hill to die on, because it won’t stop the flow.”

Gonzales and Bacon also worry that taking up hard-line bills like Roy’s proposal could hurt House Republicans politically, especially in parts of the country where the party has made significant gains with Hispanic voters.

“If you want to lose the majority, this is how you do it,” Gonzales said.

In a Sunday interview on Fox News, Scalise said the House plans to piece together “a package of bills to secure the border” to eventually send to the Senate, adding on Twitter that it would force the upper chamber “to go on record and say if they are for open borders or for ending the flow of deadly drugs and illegal immigration.”

Gonzales has put forth legislation with three other Texas Republicans — including Rep. Monica De La Cruz, who is the only other Republican who represents a border district in Texas — that would double funds allocated through a grant program to the southern border that helps bolster border patrol and law enforcement agencies.

Since arriving to Congress last term, Salazar, who is Cuban American, has made it her singular mission to pass immigration reform, most recently proposing a solution to the legal immigration process that has been plagued by visa backlogs. The second plank of her proposal, an updated version of which is expected in the spring, will be composed of proposals often championed by Republicans and Democrats to help undocumented immigrants, like Dreamers and farmworkers, attain a pathway to citizenship and fund more border security.

Salazar said she plans on speaking to her Freedom Caucus colleagues about how helping many people “come out of the shadows to work with dignity” will only help bolster the U.S. economy, as it has done over decades.

“The American exceptionalism, we are the big elephant in the room, saving the room. But in order for us to continue being the saviors of the world … we need to fix the economy and fix immigration,” Salazar said. “Reality is hitting us in the face, so we have to face it.”

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