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Question of Legalizing Dreamer Parents Trips Up Immigration Debate

Moderates draw a line after giving ground on other demands

Rep. Jeff Denham, R-Calif., talks with reporters after a meeting of the House Republican Conference in the Capitol on June 26, 2018. (Photo By Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
Rep. Jeff Denham, R-Calif., talks with reporters after a meeting of the House Republican Conference in the Capitol on June 26, 2018. (Photo By Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

Moderate Republicans have given a lot of ground to conservatives in immigration talks, but it’s the one matter where they’ve refused to negotiate that is likely to sink a compromise bill the House is scheduled to vote on Wednesday.

The bill, which members representing the various GOP factions have spent the past few weeks negotiating, will not pass the House on Wednesday, several members close to the discussions acknowledged Tuesday.

The group of more than a dozen Republicans had worked through various policy divisions, even agreeing to provide a path to citizenship for so-called Dreamers, young undocumented immigrants brought to the U.S. as children.

But the bill doesn’t change current law to prevent Dreamers from sponsoring visas for their parents once they become citizens — an omission that continuously caused pause among conservatives and was ultimately why several members said they can’t vote in favor.

Moderates were not willing to block Dreamers from sponsoring their parents for legal status, especially after giving conservatives so many other things they wanted.

“We’re not going to treat DACA recipients as second-class citizens that can’t sponsor parents,” said California Rep. Jeff Denham, one of the moderates leading the negotiations, referring to the population of Dreamers currently sheltered from deportation through the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program.

Why Are the Dreamers Called the Dreamers?

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The compromise bill provides current DACA recipients, along with those that would otherwise be eligible for the program but never applied, the ability to obtain a renewable six-year, nonimmigrant legal status from which they can apply for a new merit-based visa and eventually citizenship.

The bill would cut visas U.S. citizens can use to sponsor married children and visas from the diversity lottery program, reallocating them to the new merit-based program for Dreamers and other young immigrants. The measure also boosts employment-based visas by cutting the ones U.S. citizens can use to sponsor adult siblings, but it makes no changes to other family-based visa categories.

Rep. Raúl Labrador, chairman of the House Judiciary Subcommittee on Immigration and a member of the conservative Freedom Caucus and Republican Study Committee, said the issue of Dreamers being able to sponsor their parents is the biggest hang-up to the bill.

“I think that the majority of the conference understands that you can’t reward the parents of people that brought them here illegally,” the Idaho Republican said.

Freedom Caucus members Ted Yoho of Florida and Scott DesJarlais of Tennessee are among several members who say they will not vote for the compromise bill because of the Dreamers’ parents issue.

“I think we have to deal with the chain migration with parents of DACA recipients,” Desjarlais said. “That’s something I want to see addressed.”

‘For God’s sake’

When Roll Call brought up conservatives’ concerns about the DACA parents, Rep. John Katko was visibly frustrated.

“Oh for God’s sake,” said the New York Republican who co-chairs the moderate Tuesday Group. “You can always pull out threads of any bill that you don’t like. But think about it. They’re emphasizing negative instead of the colossal amount of positive of this bill.”

Labrador said he doesn’t think the compromise bill will pass this week but he thinks if negotiators are willing to keep working they can work out legislation that can pass before the August recess.

GOP leaders are moving ahead with a Wednesday vote and have signaled they will not push it off again — as they did last week — even if the measure cannot pass. In a sign that leadership believes the bill will likely fail, they’ve begun discussions with members about a more narrow measure focused on addressing the issue of family separations at the border.

Some members said the House could take up a stand-alone bill dealing with family separation as soon as Thursday, but Speaker Paul D. Ryan didn’t want to provide a commitment on that so as not to undercut the compromise bill.

“I want to get through the first Wednesday vote, because I want to lean into that vote and do as well as we possibly can on that vote,” the Wisconsin Republican said Tuesday morning.

“And then, if that doesn’t succeed, then we’ll cross that bridge,” he added. “But the last thing I want to do is undercut a vote on what is a great consensus bill that we’re bringing to the floor Wednesday.” 

E-Verify/guest worker amendment left out

House Republicans spent part of Tuesday discussing whether to add an amendment negotiators drafted over the weekend marrying a provision to require employers to use the E-Verify database to check the legal status of their employees with the creation of a guest-worker visa program for agriculture and other industries where labor is in short supply.

Denham and several other GOP lawmakers said Tuesday morning it would be added only if it moved the number of “yes” votes for the bill to 215, the threshold needed for passage if all members participate in the vote.

Ultimately, the call was made not to add the amendment after Denham and others checked with members and realized it wasn’t enough to secure the bill’s passage.

Denham expressed frustration that conservatives who requested the addition of E-Verify to the bill couldn’t get to “yes.”

Republican Study Committee Chairman Mark Walker and Freedom Caucus Chairman Mark Meadows, both of North Carolina, had said the amendment would’ve moved some conservatives from their caucuses to “yes.” But the changes also would’ve repelled some moderates. 

“Think of it as a teeter-totter or seesaw,” Walker said. “Every time you kind of put people on one side it kind of pushed people on the other.”

The Dreamers’ parents matter also would have had a seesaw effect. 

Some members who were sitting on the fence were looking for President Donald Trump to weigh in more forcefully in support of the bill, Walker said.

The president has privately told House Republicans he supports the compromise bill but publicly has questioned why they’re bothering with the effort given that Senate Democrats will block the bill in the other chamber.

“It squarely falls on the White House,” New York Rep. John Faso said of the bill’s expected failure. “They have sent mixed messages and have scared a number of people away who should be supporting this.”

Moderates frustrated

Moderates have already begun to blame the expected failure on conservatives unwillingness to get to “yes.”

“All the many additions they put into the bill, they can’t support those?” Denham scoffed.

Florida Rep. Carlos Curbelo, another moderate negotiator, confirmed member accounts of a Thursday GOP conference meeting where he talked about how far moderates had moved and said supporting the compromise bill is a tough vote for him personally and politically.

“For me, having the House act on immigration, meaning getting a bill out that’s workable, is a major priority,” Curbelo told reporters Tuesday. “And that’s why I’ve been at the negotiating table, because we need the House to act. If the House doesn’t act on immigration, it’s just not going to happen.”

Katko was also annoyed that conservatives continued to raise objections to the bill after securing so many things they wanted.

“Where it started from and it where it is now, this bill is more conservative than Goodlatte 1,” he said, referring to another bill also authored by Judiciary Chairman Robert W. Goodlatte that the House rejected last week. Republicans have sometimes referred to the compromise bill as Goodlatte 2.

Unlike the rejected Goodlatte bill that only authorizes funding for Trump’s border wall, the compromise bill provides advanced appropriations for it. Moderates were even open to the amendment on E-Verify and guest workers — issues that were both addressed in the original Goodlatte bill — to gin up support for the compromise.

Conservatives like Walker and Freedom Caucus leader Jim Jordan said they were happy to continue negotiations but suggested working off the original Goodlatte bill since it got 193 votes — just 22 shy of passage.

“This is what I told our members of the Freedom Caucus: The whole dynamic changed when we saw what happened last Thursday,” Jordan said of the higher than expected support for the original Goodlatte bill.

But moderates, most of whom voted against that measure, don’t see returning to it.

“At the end of the day it is very clear that Republicans cannot pass an immigration bill,” Denham said. “And it was very clear that in 2010 Democrats with 260 members couldn’t pass a clean Dream Act when 38 of the Democrats voted against it. And so I think it’s a very clear message that Republicans and Democrats need to work together on an American solution. That’s the only way this is going to get done.” 

Moderates have continuously left open the possibility of starting another discharge petition to force the House to vote on a bipartisan product.

Asked about that Tuesday, Katko repeated what he, Denham and Curbelo have been saying for weeks: “All options are on the table.”

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