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House Republicans united on border policy focus

Judiciary Chairman Jim Jordan of Ohio has said Republicans will not consider offering 'amnesty' in an upcoming border bill

Rep. Mark Green, R-Tenn., the new chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, walks in the Capitol on Monday.
Rep. Mark Green, R-Tenn., the new chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, walks in the Capitol on Monday. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

Despite Republican Conference divisions laid bare by a dayslong internal battle for speaker, the party has emerged united on plans to focus this year on immigration issues and oversight of the Biden administration’s border policies.

Republicans in both camps during those speaker votes underscored the need for action on border security. Republicans newly tasked with leading the House’s immigration and border security committees have said the issue will be a top priority.

House Majority Leader Steve Scalise, R-La., announced a border security bill will be brought to the floor in the coming weeks and said lawmakers would hold a hearing about the “open border” on location. And articles of impeachment against Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas have already been filed by one Republican lawmaker, and more are expected.

But Republicans’ goal for Congress to pass legislation to secure the border appears tough to accomplish. Democrats control the Senate, and Republicans have such a slim majority in the House that disagreement from only a few moderates could derail more aggressive approaches.

As the 118th Congress began this month, Republican lawmakers were steadfast in their refusal to consider adding to border security legislation any provisions to protect undocumented immigrants, including so-called Dreamers brought to the country as children.

That stance could doom any border security bill once it reaches the Democratic-controlled Senate. But Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, who chairs the Judiciary Committee that oversees immigration bills, and other Republicans don’t seem to mind.

“We’re for doing what needs to be done to secure the border. We’re not for giving amnesty,” Jordan said Thursday.

California Republican Tom McClintock, the top Republican on the Judiciary Committee’s immigration panel in the last Congress, said the “first priority needs to be to secure our borders.”

And Rep. Mark E. Green of Tennessee, the chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, said Republicans will “put our own bill together, and the Senate can look at it.”

Green said the bill will go through both the Homeland Security and Judiciary committees simultaneously and will “cover all of the border issues.”

“We just got flipped to be the majority. The American people just spoke. So we’re going to act like we’re the majority,” Green said.

House Speaker Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., already has said he would be unwilling to bring any bills to the floor that offer “amnesty” to undocumented immigrants.

It’s a message that’s unlikely to move Democrats, whose votes are needed for any House-passed legislation to advance in the Senate.

Rep. Veronica Escobar, a Democrat from El Paso, Texas, said it would be a “huge mistake” for McCarthy to block immigration bills that legalize undocumented immigrants, “especially for someone who claims to want to help address the humanitarian crisis at the border.”

New York Democrat Jerrold Nadler, the chair in the last Congress of the House Judiciary Committee, threw cold water on the prospects of an immigration deal.

“It would be nice to think that we could get meaningful immigration reform, but the Republicans have opposed it down the line, so it’s very hard to think that we will,” Nadler said.

Sergio Gonzales, executive director of advocacy group Immigration Hub who previously was policy adviser to then-Sen. Kamala Harris on immigration and other issues, was similarly pessimistic.

“I think things on the Hill look bleak, very bleak,” Gonzales said.

Gang of Eight 2.0?

Meanwhile, hundreds of miles from Washington, a bipartisan group of senators struck a more conciliatory tone on the issue, offering a glimmer of hope that immigration negotiations could live on.

During roundtable discussions on a trip this week to El Paso and Yuma, Ariz., the group of eight — reminiscent of the so-called “Gang of Eight” immigration negotiators who tried and failed to pass a comprehensive immigration bill a decade ago — all expressed some level of optimism that the new House Republican majority may not be a death knell to bipartisan work.

Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, I-Ariz., said in El Paso on Monday that if the House sends over a border package, the Senate could add various other provisions to make it more bipartisan, including measures to improve asylum processing and legalize undocumented immigrants brought to the country as children, known as Dreamers.

Sinema assembled an immigration framework last year with Sen. Thom Tillis, R-N.C., another member on the border trip, but the pair ran out of time to whip up support and bring it to the floor before the year ended. In December, Sinema said in an interview they would “pick back up” the effort in January.

“While I’m not going to predict that we’re going to have great success, what I will tell you is, if success is available, this is a group of people who are willing and committed to get it done,” Sinema said at a press conference Tuesday evening in Yuma.

Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, also on the border trip, praised the group for having “a track record of actually coming up with solutions in hard areas where others have said, ‘Well, it’s just too politically dangerous for me to take a stand or to take a risk.’”

“I’m hopeful that we will act,” Cornyn said.

But a Senate deal combining both may be a tough sell to the House Republican majority. Green said Thursday the Sinema-Tillis deal was “dead.”

“No one in the House is going to vote on that. It’s garbage, and you can quote me on that,” Green said.

The Republican Party has selected members of its more conservative wing to sit at the helm of key immigration committees. Both Green and Jordan, whose committee will handle border security and immigration bills, are members of the far-right Freedom Caucus.

Increasing pressure

Still, after two years in the minority chastising Democrats for their handling of the southwest border, congressional Republicans will now face increasing pressure to act that could be enough to bring them to the negotiating table.

Some moderate Republicans have already signaled interest in a bipartisan immigration compromise. Thirty House Republicans voted for legislation last session that would have created a path to citizenship for some undocumented farmworkers and revised the agricultural visa program, and nine Republicans voted for a separate House bill that would have legalized Dreamers and other groups of undocumented immigrants.

Meanwhile, migration levels to the southwest have remained high, and a pandemic-related policy allowing border agents to turn away asylum-seekers who cross the border could be terminated as soon as this spring, depending how the Supreme Court rules on it.

Republicans will “have to be much more pragmatic on the issue of immigration” if they want to pass legislation, said Daniel Garza, executive director of the LIBRE Initiative, a conservative-leaning group that represents Hispanics.

“They’re going to have to show a lot of pliability here to get what they want,” Garza said, adding that Democrats must also agree to accept border security measures for any deal to move forward.

A potential end in court to the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, which provides work authorization and deportation protections to over 600,000 Dreamers, could also serve as a catalyst for lawmakers to reach a deal.

“If you can’t pass that, I don’t know where we stand on the other issues,” Garza said.

Gonzales, of Immigration Hub, said there is a “real possibility” that if DACA is struck down in court, more conservative Republicans may “continue to be unwilling to do anything.”

“But with that being said, you never know,” Gonzales said. “I do feel like there’ll be a lot of pressure in that moment on Congress to do something.

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