“One of his friends, a fraternity brother, came to me and said, ‘What are you doing on this issue?’ ” he recalled.
Denham and nearly two dozen of his fellow Republican lawmakers have joined to do something about it, spurred by pressure back home and frustrated by the GOP leadership’s lack of action on a heated issue that has long stymied the party. They could represent the best chance that dreamers — beneficiaries of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program — now have to secure legal protections under President Trump.
They are pitted against the conservatives who dominate the Republican rank and file and have campaigned against “amnesty” for people who are in the country illegally. The conservatives take their cues on the issue from a president who has angrily demanded a crackdown at the border but has also promised at times to solve the dreamers’ dilemma once and for all.
“We’ve had it,” said Rep. Fred Upton (R-Mich.), who has joined Denham and the others pressing for a bill. “We’re boiling over. It’s got to get done.”
By undertaking a rare maneuver to force consideration of legislation over the objections of the Republican leadership, this group has rekindled a sputtering immigration debate in Congress and raised the possibility that a bipartisan compromise could emerge from the deeply divided House, giving Trump what could be his only opportunity to sign an immigration bill into law this year.
They have done so by defying House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) and other top Republican leaders who fear that unleashing such an internally divisive issue in an election year could hurt the GOP’s chances in November’s midterms and potentially risk the party’s majority in the House.
Interviews with more than half of the 20 Republicans who have signed the measure reveal a cadre of dutiful lawmakers who typically follow their leaders on key initiatives and in many cases have won positions of trust in the GOP ranks, but have also nursed deep frustrations over the lack of progress on immigration.
“You just wake up one day and realize that you’re running in place, and that’s when we got together and said it’s time to take this step,” said Rep. Carlos Curbelo (R-Fla.), who filed the “discharge petition” that has prompted the showdown.
The Republican signers range in seniority from Upton, a 16-term incumbent and former chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, to John Faso, a freshman representing a district in Upstate New York.
They represent districts that stretch from the heart of Miami to the sprawling suburbs of Denver to the rural Adirondack Mountains. Some, such as Reps. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen and Mario Diaz-Balart of Florida, are veteran combatants in the immigration debate. Others, such as Michigan’s Dave Trott and New Jersey’s Leonard Lance, represent suburban districts that are home to relatively few dreamers.
Twelve of the 20 face competitive races in November, according to the nonpartisan Cook Political Report — including Curbelo, Denham and Rep. Will Hurd (R-Tex.), who are leading the discharge push.
Three, however, represent districts Trump won by double digits. Four more are retiring from Congress at the end of the year, and one — Charlie Dent (R-Pa.) — has resigned altogether. (His signature still counts, according to House rules.)
What ties together the discharge proponents is “just pure frustration,” said Rep. Mike Coffman (R-Colo.), who represents a diverse suburban district. “Republicans always argue that it’s a step-by-step process. Well, when are we going to take the first step?”
The tortured state of immigration politics inside the Republican Party can be traced at least as far as the presidency of George W. Bush, who wanted to give at least some illegal immigrants a path to legal status. Since then, the party has moved steadily rightward, culminating last year in Trump’s decision to cancel DACA — the program created by President Barack Obama that protects hundreds of thousands of dreamers from deportation. But when that cancellation was at least temporarily blocked by the courts, Congress lost any momentum it may have had to cut a deal.
Despite Trump’s continued strident rhetoric on immigration — including remarks calling some immigrants “animals” at a White House event last week meant to highlight the criminal threat — the discharge backers believe that he could be amenable to a compromise that would allow him to deliver on at least some of his priorities on enforcement and security. And they believe the only way to test that theory is to force a debate.
“This institution acts only when pressured to, and we knew that we needed to find a new source of pressure,” said Curbelo, who represents a South Florida district that is home to an estimated 5,000 dreamers.
The discharge proponents have been inspired by their ideological opposites on the GOP’s hard right, who have used procedural hardball tactics to drive Republican legislation in their own direction. That was on display Friday, when members of the House Freedom Caucus voted down a massive GOP-written farm bill to secure a vote on conservative immigration legislation and block bipartisan alternatives.
“While I am frustrated by a lot of the Freedom Caucus’s tactics, I can also appreciate that their tactics are forcing their issues forward,” Denham said. “And I think there are a number of us who realized that.”
A blunt and imposing Air Force veteran, Denham has spent his congressional career quizzing every member of the House — Republican and Democrat — to learn their immigration views in detail.
He has long championed a bill, the ENLIST Act, that would allow dreamers who serve in the military to earn permanent legal residency and eventually citizenship. That bill has more than half the House signed on as co-sponsors, but leadership has never allowed it — or any other immigration measure — to come to a vote.
“ ‘We need a little more time to work on this’ — that’s been the excuse for eight years that I’ve been in the House now,” Denham said.
This year, patience ran out. In January, Hurd co-introduced a bill with Rep. Pete Aguilar (D-Calif.) that would couple a DACA fix with border security funding — though not the wall Trump champions. In March, Denham filed a special resolution that would set up debate and votes on bills including Hurd’s. Then, this month, Curbelo filed the discharge petition to force that debate.
They have since found support from lawmakers with a diverse set of motivations.
Upton, for instance, represents a farm-heavy district in southwest Michigan where apple growers, asparagus harvesters and dairy farmers all rely on immigrant labor. Trips around the district routinely mean talking to farmers who fret over the potential loss of their workforce and constituents who are living in legal limbo.
Some are dreamers, some knowingly crossed the border illegally. The conversations, Upton said, are always difficult.
Just this month, he said, he met a father of two who is married to an American and rides a bike to work because he doesn’t have a driver’s license. “He’s scared to death he is going to be picked up for whatever and sent someplace else, and it is frightening,” Upton said. “You sit down with these folks, and, I mean, people cry.”
Rep. Chris Collins (R-N.Y.) stands apart from the other signers in many ways: He occupies a safe Republican seat and was among Trump’s earliest supporters in Congress. But his western New York district is home to hundreds of dairy farms that rely on immigrant labor.
“Right now, my dairy farmers are saying to Republicans: You’ve got the House, the Senate, the White House, and you’ve got to give us a legal workforce, and I agree with that,” he said.
Collins, who favors a conservative immigration bill that would set up an agricultural guest worker program, acknowledged that the House may never be able to pass a bill. “But then those of us can go home and say we did our best,” he added. “I fought for you and I’m willing to go against leadership to fight for you, and that’s all you can expect out of me.”
Others, meanwhile, are just sick of waiting for an immigration debate whose time never seems to come.
“I missed the part where the status quo is a win,” said Rep. Mark Amodei (R-Nev.), who represents a largely rural district that Trump won by 12 points and is home to an estimated 2,900 DACA recipients. “You tell me how you go home and say, ‘Let me tell you how I’m kicking tail representing you by doing nothing.’ ”
With five more Republican signatures need to force an immigration debate, assuming all Democrats sign the petition, top Republican leaders indicated Friday that they are ready to put the issue on the floor next month. But key details remain to be hashed out, and Curbelo and Denham say they are unwilling to abandon their petition just yet.
Several Republicans said last week that they are waiting in the wings, hoping GOP leaders make good on their promises before the start of a week-long Memorial Day recess next week.
Rep. Tom Reed, who represents another western New York district, said he would sign the discharge petition if Ryan & Co. do not quickly tee up a debate: “I don’t want to go home without having forced the question on this issue.”
Denham said he is “extremely confident” that more Republicans will follow. “I know where my votes are,” he said.