Key Senate Republicans have begun privately discussing the contours of an immigration plan to shield the hundreds of thousands of Dreamers who will lose work permits and deportation protections starting early next year.
Preliminary talks show that influential GOP senators are eager to devise a legislative fix for Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals that could pass muster with both Democrats and President Donald Trump, who said he will start winding down the Obama-era program in March to force lawmakers to come up with a permanent DACA measure with significant border security and enforcement provisions attached.
In an interview, Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn (R-Texas) said the Senate Judiciary Committee chairman, Chuck Grassley of Iowa, has convened a working group on immigration that includes himself and GOP Sens. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, Thom Tillis of North Carolina and James Lankford of Oklahoma, as well as other lawmakers. Sens. David Perdue of Georgia and Jeff Flake of Arizona also are among the Republicans who have been engaged in the talks, according to sources.
“There’s a solution to be had there,” Cornyn said. “But we just need to get on with it.”
A bipartisan DACA deal is in no way imminent. Democrats are waiting for Republicans to offer their list of demands in exchange for legalizing Dreamers. And an immigration package that gets through the Senate, even with GOP sweeteners, may have trouble in the more conservative House.
But some outlines of an agreement are becoming clearer. For instance, the senators have all but ruled out including a mandatory workplace verification system known as E-Verify in a final DACA agreement, according to multiple lawmakers engaged in the talks.
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Ideas that do remain in contention among this circle of Republicans include beefed-up border security provisions, limiting some chain migration and measures that one senator described as a “down payment” on shifting the U.S. immigration laws into a merit-based system, according to GOP senators. A spokesman said Grassley is gathering suggestions from other Senate Republicans on not only a DACA fix but enforcement provisions to “address the root cause of illegal immigration.”
“It’s a Rubik’s cube with five dimensions,” Perdue said.
The quiet movement toward a DACA deal comes amid a significant public rift between the parties — particularly between the Trump administration and congressional Democrats — over the fate of nearly 700,000 current DACA beneficiaries.
Trump appeared to strike a tentative agreement in September with Democratic leaders that would pair modest border security measures (and no border wall) with permanent status for young undocumented immigrants who came to the United States as minors. But his administration has since taken a sharp turn on its DACA demands — unveiling an extensive list of hard-line immigration provisions that are nonstarters with Democrats and even many Republicans.
“Most of [the Dreamers] went through our system. Many of them don't speak the language of their country because they've never been to their country. We are going to try and solve that,” Trump said in a Fox News interview this month. “In order to solve that, we want a wall and we want great border security.”
Behind the scenes, Senate Republicans involved in the talks essentially ignore some of Trump’s top demands — the workplace verification system, for example — yet are finding other ways to accommodate the White House’s immigration wish list to appease conservatives but not alienate Democrats.
A handful of Republicans have run ideas by Senate Minority Whip Dick Durbin of Illinois, the second-ranking Senate Democrat who first wrote legislation that gives Dreamers a pathway to citizenship in 2001. Durbin and Graham have been pitching the latest iteration of the DREAM Act, although Graham says he’ll need to secure some concessions from Democrats to lock down enough GOP votes. The DREAM Act, for instance, covers a much broader population than the estimated 690,000 immigrants who currently hold DACA permits.
Graham wants to begin transforming the U.S. immigration system to one based primarily on economic needs rather than family ties, without slashing the number of green cards as some conservative senators have proposed.
Legislation from Tillis and Lankford tries to address so-called chain migration concerns by barring Dreamers who benefit from their bill from sponsoring relatives until they obtain U.S. citizenship. Under current law, green card holders can sponsor spouses and children for permanent residency.
“We gotta deal with that issue somehow and we just can’t single them out,” Graham said. “So we’re gonna have to start making a down payment on moving toward a merit-based [system], a down payment toward rebalancing green cards.”
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Even though they’re aware Republicans will want some concessions, Democrats are wary about accommodating an extensive list of GOP demands and prefer to abide by the narrower deal that Trump seemingly agreed to last month.
“We cannot put comprehensive immigration reform on the backs of these kids,” Durbin said in an interview. “That is unfair and the long list of things that Republicans want to do include many things that need to be saved for a later debate on a comprehensive bill.”
Still, Durbin expressed some optimism: “I think we’re at critical mass here in terms of the number of Republican senators once we reach an agreement. We haven’t reached an agreement yet.”
Several of the GOP senators involved in the immigration discussions are fine with punting negotiations over a nationwide mandatory E-Verify system, particularly since Democrats will not accept any policy provision that will help identify other immigrants here illegally.
Republicans also acknowledge that insisting on E-Verify will only set off another complicated negotiation over agricultural worker visas and want to keep the DACA talks tightly contained.
“There are large segments of some important sectors, like agriculture, where we need to do E-Verify with immigration reform to make sure that there’s an adequate legal workforce,” Cornyn said. “And if we start adding too much stuff to the DACA-border security approach, then we get back into comprehensive immigration reform and nothing happens.”
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But there are other interior enforcement provisions that Democrats — who will reject not only E-Verify but a dramatic boost in immigration enforcement agents, another Trump demand — would find palatable.
Flake is pitching his own measure that would combine a DACA fix with about $1.6 billion in more border security and language making it easier for immigrants affiliated with gangs to be deported. The veteran immigration deal-maker has shared his plan not only with Democrats but with Vice President Mike Pence, he said in a recent interview.
“That is something we can do, we can achieve,” Durbin said of the gang-related provisions in Flake’s legislation. “But the interior enforcement we’re worried about is more ICE agents swooping up people and arresting them who’ve been here for years, causing no problems.”