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House GOP weighs possible immigration compromise with border wall funds

Rep. Carlos Curbelo (R-Fla.) says the chances of a GOP deal on immigration are “50/50.”
Rep. Carlos Curbelo (R-Fla.) says the chances of a GOP deal on immigration are “50/50.” (Lynne Sladky/AP)

House Republican negotiators are reviewing an outline of a potential immigration compromise that would offer a means for young undocumented immigrants to become U.S. citizens and provide billions for President Trump’s border wall.

But no deal was at hand Friday, with GOP leaders under pressure to produce legislation in the coming days that could pass the House and avoid an election-year showdown pitting conservatives against moderates on the divisive issue.

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The outline was developed late Thursday after its concepts were discussed in a closed-door conference meeting of all House Republicans. Leaders of the conservative and moderate GOP blocs met Friday to examine the framework, and emerged saying that citizenship was still an obstacle but that talks would continue.

Rep. Carlos Curbelo (R-Fla.), a moderate involved in the negotiations, put chances of a deal at “50/50.”

“It’s delicate,” he said. “It’s obviously a highly divisive issue in the House Republican Conference, so we’re staying sober. But we’re as close as we’ve ever been.”

Immigration has split the House GOP, with conservatives aligned with Trump’s hard-line stance at odds with moderates intent on protecting young undocumented immigrants, known as dreamers, who arrived in the United States as children and are now at risk of deportation because of the president’s cancellation of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program.

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The moderates have gathered signatures on a “discharge petition” that would force votes on bipartisan bills that most Republicans oppose. GOP leaders are scrambling to prevent the petition from being completed on Tuesday, which would set a debate for June 25.

Parts of the two-page outline were sketched out to reporters Friday by Curbelo, who filed the discharge petition, and confirmed by other lawmakers and aides familiar with the talks.

It includes border security measures, including $25 billion for a border wall and cuts to legal immigration programs alongside a permanent fix for the dreamers. Those pieces correspond to the “four pillars” laid out in a January framework issued by the White House.

“The key is passing a bill that addresses these problems working with President Trump to achieve the four pillars he laid out,” said House Majority Whip Steve Scalise (R-La.). “We’re going to keep working till we get it done.”

The outline does not include, according to aides, provisions dealing with employer verification of work authorization or a guest worker program for the agricultural sector. Those had emerged as major sticking points in a more conservative bill drafted earlier this year by House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.) and Homeland Security Committee Chairman Michael McCaul (R-Texas).

The question of a pathway to citizenship for dreamers remains the most in­trac­table issue.

“The key is, as I’ve said all along, is we just don’t feel like there should be a special pathway, and so we’re trying to figure out one that’s not a special pathway,” said Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio), one of the conservative negotiators.

The outline contains two options that would give dreamers, including those enrolled in the DACA program, an eventual path to citizenship. One is a proposal sketched out by Rep. Raúl R. Labrador (R-Idaho) that would create a new class of visas by combining existing visa categories. Dreamers could apply for these visas under what Curbelo described as a “merit system,” but they would not be exclusively entitled to them. That solution is meant to address conservative concerns that there be no “special” pathway to citizenship for dreamers.

“We agreed on some things, disagreed on some things, and you are not going to have a full agreement until we agree on all things,” Labrador said.

Another option, according to Curbelo, resembles “what you’ve seen in most dreamer legislation over the last 17 years.” The Dream Act and other bipartisan bills would give dreamers an explicit ability to gain legal permanent residency after a period of time without having to compete with other immigrants for visas. Lawmakers said that option is unlikely to be embraced given the conservative opposition.

But the disagreements were not limited to the question of citizenship. Republicans have yet to reach an accord on what enforcement and border security provisions should be included. The moderates are hoping to keep their scope relatively narrow, while conservatives are pushing for language that would tighten eligibility for asylum, crack down on ‘“sanctuary” jurisdictions that do not cooperate with federal immigration enforcement and increase the Department of Homeland Security’s capacity to conduct deportations.

“If there’s going to be concessions made on the one side, you have to get everything that you need on the security side, because the American people are tired of seeing the border unsecure, people coming into the country and staying that don’t belong here, and their taxes paying for that,” said Rep. Scott Perry (R-Pa.), a member of the House Freedom Caucus. “They’re willing to be compassionate and empathetic to the circumstances, but it can’t go on forever.”

Rep. Jeff Denham (R-Calif.), a leader of the discharge effort, expressed frustration with those latest demands: “We’re trying to close items out, not add new ones.”

By and large, however, negotiations seemed to be back on track after a hiccup Thursday after Denham publicly claimed to have reached an agreement with conservatives on how to give dreamers a path to citizenship.

That rankled hard-liners who privately saw it as an attempt to derail the negotiations and pave the way for the discharge petition.

Labrador said it was “unlikely” that an agreement could be reached and drafted into legislation by Tuesday. But lawmakers on both sides said Friday that even if the discharge petition is completed next week, they expect talks to continue in hopes of reaching an accord before votes on the 25th.

“I don’t think it would disrupt our negotiations at all,” Curbelo said. “And I think it would guarantee that we would have debate and votes on the House floor, which is all we have asked for.”

The petition is currently three signatures short of completion. One Democratic holdout, Rep. Henry Cuellar (Tex.), suggested Friday that he would ultimately sign it after meeting with Democratic leaders to emphasize his opposition to a border wall.

“I’m just trying to make a point to these folks,” said Cuellar, who represents a border district. “Fight the wall; don’t just say, ‘We’re going to give you the wall.’ ”

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