Immigration has exposed deep divisions within the GOP, pitting conservative adherents of President Trump’s hard-line stance against moderates frustrated by inaction. Last Friday, the Republican unrest sank an unrelated farm bill in a blow to House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.), who faces a threat to his leadership from the feuding.
Republican leaders fear that a tumultuous election-year fight over immigration could cost them their majority in November.
The centrists, who are building support for a maneuver called a discharge petition that would force votes on a series of immigration bills, are pushing for a measure that would provide permanent legal status for the young immigrants, known as “dreamers,” including those covered under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program that Trump has canceled.
But to many conservatives, that would amount to the kind of “amnesty” they have long opposed for immigrants in the country illegally. The bill they favor would instead provide only temporary renewable work permits for DACA recipients.
House leaders have struggled to gather enough votes to pass such a bill after months of internal talks. Now, the discharge petition has brought that effort to a head as moderates push their demands.
A permanent dreamer fix is “essential,” said Rep. Carlos Curbelo (R-Fla.), who filed the petition, after emerging from a meeting with Ryan, House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), Majority Whip Steve Scalise (R-La.) and leaders of the GOP’s conservative bloc.
Curbelo said that he and other proponents of the discharge petition remained ready to gather enough signatures to force action next month but that they were willing to hold off temporarily to negotiate a path forward with GOP leaders.
“We have some time, but we’re ready to act at any time,” Curbelo said. “We have our own plan, and our leaders want an opportunity to come up with theirs, and we’re helping to do that.”
One additional Republican signed the petition Wednesday, Rep. Erik Paulsen of Minnesota. Four more GOP signatures are necessary, should all 193 Democrats sign.
The proponents had informally aimed to complete the petition by Thursday, when Congress is set to leave Washington for a week-long recess, which would force votes on June 25 — one of a limited number of days this year when discharged measures can be considered under House rules.
But a Democrat who is working closely with the Republicans leading the effort said GOP leaders had succeeded in slowing down the push.
“It’s become tougher,” said Rep. Pete Aguilar (D-Calif.). “We continue to be optimistic that we’ll get there, but it’s hard — it’s hard to get to 25 or 26 [Republicans]. ... Leadership’s working them to try to keep them from signing.”
Republicans spent more than an hour in Ryan’s office Wednesday trying to forge a solution, with plans to reconvene on Thursday. The backdrop for the negotiations is months of failed internal GOP talks — dating to last August, when Trump announced he was canceling DACA — aimed at assembling a Republican-only immigration bill that could win the necessary 218 votes to pass the House.
That has so far proved to be impossible, though negotiators acknowledge the discharge petition has forced them to give it one last go.
“What I want to see is a conservative bill — a bill that solves the problem, that secures the border, that builds the wall — and we’re working with President Trump to get that done,” Scalise said after the meeting.
Speaking Wednesday on Long Island, Trump warned of the dangers to the nation from unaccompanied migrant children arriving at the southern border, arguing that they are potentially exposing the country to eventual gang crime.
“We have the worst immigration laws of any country, anywhere in the world,” Trump said at a venue chosen because of the impact of the Central American gang MS-13 in the New York region. “They exploited the loopholes in our laws to enter the country as unaccompanied alien minors.”
“They look so innocent. They’re not innocent,” he added.
Republicans are exploring whether they can build support for the foundering immigration bill written by Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.) and Homeland Security Committee Chairman Michael McCaul (R-Tex.) by removing provisions that some GOP members have found problematic. Those include an agricultural guest worker program that would require immigrants to return to their home countries to secure visas and a requirement that employers use a federal database to screen whether their employees are eligible to work.
“I think there is a very narrow sweet spot,” said Rep. Martha McSally (R-Ariz.), who co-authored the Goodlatte-McCaul legislation. “I still believe in some form of our bill, and I’m encouraging people . . . Tell us exactly what needs to be modified — just like we did on the tax bill, just like we did on the health-care bill — specifics on what it’s going to take to get you to get to yes.”
But that could be an impossible task, thanks to the divide between Republicans like Curbelo who want a permanent fix for dreamers, including a potential path to citizenship, and a conservative rank and file wary of voting for anything of the sort.
“No pathway to citizenship,” said Rep. Roger Williams (R-Tex.), asked to describe what changes he could stomach to the Goodlatte-McCaul bill. “That’s a backdoor amnesty. I’m not for that.”
The task has been complicated by a slippery definition of what constitutes amnesty and what doesn’t. Rep. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.), the influential chairman of the conservative House Freedom Caucus, said Wednesday he would oppose a “special pathway to citizenship.”
A bill favored by the discharge proponents, for instance, does not explicitly mention citizenship, but it would allow dreamers to eventually secure status as legal permanent residents, who are in turn entitled to apply for citizenship. Meadows could not say whether that constituted a “special path.”
Those dynamics have prompted the discharge proponents to look to their left for support, to Democrats who want a permanent solution for the dreamers but also are willing to entertain a compromise on border security.
But that has generated a complication: A trio of Texas Democrats — Reps. Henry Cuellar, Vicente Gonzalez and Filemon Vela, all of whom represent border districts — have so far withheld support for the petition, arguing that it would simply pave the way for the border wall that Trump favors and that they completely reject.
“We’re saying, ‘Hey, hold it,’” Cuellar said. “I want to help the dreamers, but my issue is, you can’t just say, ‘Build a wall.’”
The discharge backers said they were not worried about the Democratic holdouts and said that if the negotiations with GOP leaders failed, they are prepared to summon enough signers to force a debate next month. Under the House schedule, they have until June 11 to do so.
“If we do fall short now,” Aguilar said, “some members are going to be in an uncomfortable position of having to go home and explain to their constituents why they haven’t signed on to this while speaking very publicly that they want a solution.”