Rank-and-File Lawmakers Not Feeling It on Grand Immigration Deal

Pairing DACA replacement with border security seen as a bad idea

House Democratic Caucus Vice Chairwoman Linda T. Sánchez says the so-called DREAM Act must be part of an immigration deal. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
House Democratic Caucus Vice Chairwoman Linda T. Sánchez says the so-called DREAM Act must be part of an immigration deal. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
Posted September 14, 2017 at 5:34pm

Updated Friday 1:42 p.m. | President Donald Trump and congressional leaders see the most likely legislative path to replacing the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program as pairing it with border security. But rank-and-file members of both parties think that’s a bad idea.

“We’re going to get ourselves in a quagmire if we allow there to be a linkage because of such disputes and debates here among the hard-line immigration crew about what should be linked,” Vermont Democratic Rep. Peter Welch said, adding that there were members for whom there could never be “enough security.”

Rep. Mo Brooks may be one of those members, as the Alabama Republican said he doesn’t see a scenario under which he could support legal status for the young undocumented immigrants brought to the United States as children, known colloquially as ‘Dreamers,’ who receive DACA benefits.

“There’s nowhere near enough border security and long-term immigration controls being implemented to justify ratifying illegal conduct,” he said.

Welch said Congress would be better to “rip the Band-Aid off” and pass a clean DACA fix.

“If we got a Dreamer bill on the floor it would pass, and I think we’d get a lot of Republican votes,” he said.

Democrats certainly prefer a clean DACA fix. The minority party’s leadership and the Congressional Hispanic Caucus have specifically advocated passage of the so-called DREAM Act, which would provide conditions under which these young undocumented immigrants could earn legal status and eventually a path to citizenship.

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi has said any immigration package to address DACA must include this bill, sponsored by California Democrat Lucille Roybal-Allard, which has a companion measure in the Senate.

“Leadership has been very supportive of CHC’s insistence that it be [the] DREAM Act and not something that’s a half measure, like the Curbelo bill,” said California Rep. Linda T. Sánchez, House Democratic Caucus vice chairwoman and a former Hispanic Caucus chairwoman.

Sánchez was referring to legislation (HR 1468) sponsored by Florida GOP Rep. Carlos Curbelo that would provide a path to legal status for young undocumented immigrants, but not the ability for them to obtain citizenship.

Sánchez was referring to legislation sponsored by Florida GOP Rep. Carlos Curbelo, known as the Recognizing America’s Children Act, or RAC, that would provide a path to legal status for young undocumented immigrants.

“Creating sort of a second-class citizenship here in the United States for Dreamers is not something CHC is [going to be] part of,” Sánchez said of the Curbelo measure.

Curbelo spokeswoman Joanna Rodriguez disputed that characterization of the bill.

“The RAC Act is a permanent legislative solution that would give young immigrants brought to the United States as children three possible pathways into the legal immigration system,” she said. “Like any other legal permanent residents, they would be able to apply for citizenship. Naturalization is how Congressman Curbelo’s parents and thousands of other immigrants become U.S. citizens every year. There is nothing second-class about it.”

Markers and nonstarters

New York GOP Rep. Chris Collins said he would support a clean DACA fix, but not the Roybal-Allard bill, which he doesn’t think is actually a hard line for Democrats.

“They’re putting their little marker down,” he said. “I can tell you right now, I’m pretty confident if it became our RAC Act they’d vote for it en masse.”

While some moderate Republicans like Collins would likely back a standalone DACA measure, Speaker Paul D. Ryan has been clear that’s a nonstarter. He and most of the GOP rank-and-file want to ensure there’s a border security component.

Ryan declined to say whether the GOP would pursue a step-by-step approach in which border security measures must be passed before the DACA piece or one bill combining the two, but many members of his conference prefer the former.

“The enforcement needs to happen first before the legalization,” Pennsylvania GOP Rep. Lou Barletta said, describing enforcement as “securing our borders, cracking down on visa overstays, making E-verify mandatory.”

Barletta’s tenure as mayor of Hazelton, Pennsylvania, was defined by his crackdown on immigration, paving the way for his run for Congress.

“This is an opportunity for all of us to give the American people what they have been asking for — that is putting an end to illegal immigration, at the same time having compassion for the 800,000 who are here,” he said.

Other GOP lawmakers don’t even understand why Republicans are considering such a deal.

“Let’s put our pieces of legislation out there to trade and grant amnesty and DACA for the things we ought to have the votes to pass as Republicans anyway?” Rep. Steve King said. “It doesn’t make sense to me.”

The Iowa Republican said he’s told leadership he doesn’t see himself voting for any measure that would provide amnesty for DACA recipients.

He sees that as repeating the history of previous immigration bills — from a 1986 effort led by then President Ronald Reagan to the 2013 Gang of Eight bill — that he considers amnesty and a nonstarter.

King warned that a move in that direction would rile up the conservative base.

“There’s only one thing that cracks President Trump’s base and that’s if he cracks on immigration,” he said.

Ohio Rep. Steve Stivers, the chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee, said that won’t be an issue.

“I don’t think we’ll do anything that’s anything near amnesty, so I’m not worried about it at all,” he said.

If there is one thing to be gleaned from talking to members, it is that the situation is fluid. 

“We always need to be careful with Trump because he’s shown that he switches positions quickly and often,” Sánchez said. “But having said that I think you have to continue the discussions and the negotiations. I don’t think you get anywhere productive if you just refuse to talk about something.”

Correction Friday 1:42 p.m. | This story was corrected to say the bill by Rep. Carlos Curbelo offers a path to citizenship and updated with a comment from his spokeswoman.