Republicans in Washington are nearly unanimous that addressing the issue of immigration is essential to their political future. But they remain deeply divided as to how.
The conservative wing of the party, emboldened by President Donald Trump’s approach, are pushing hardline measures, including limits on legal immigration and funding for a border wall, that they believe will turn out the base in November and re-elect Trump in 2020.
Members of the party that are more moderate on the issue, which include congressmen who face tough re-elections in the midterms and those closely aligned with the business community, are pushing for legislation that would include a guaranteed way for young undocumented immigrants who came to the US as children covered under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals to gain citizenship. They also support scaling back some of the more aggressive approaches like cutting legal immigration.
It’s this sharp divergence that explains the recent dramatic failure of House Republicans to pass any immigration bill – with the so-called Republican compromise bill falling nearly 100 votes short. It was a vote that members on either side of the issue had tied to their chances for success in November.
With the bill’s failure and no clear path towards a resolution, the party’s internal tension is all but guaranteed to continue to be on full display into the midterm elections and beyond.
Meanwhile, Trump continues to hammer the issue, tweeting Thursday, “Congress must pass smart, fast and reasonable Immigration Laws now. Law Enforcement at the Border is doing a great job, but the laws they are forced to work with are insane.
“When people, with or without children, enter our Country, they must be told to leave without our Country being forced to endure a long and costly trial. Tell the people “OUT,” and they must leave, just as they would if they were standing on your front lawn. Hiring thousands of “judges” does not work and is not acceptable - only Country in the World that does this!”
He concluded, “Congress - FIX OUR INSANE IMMIGRATION LAWS NOW!”
Both ends of the spectrum point to Trump’s speeches and tweets as evidence the issue won’t go away and look to him for backup for their preferred course of action. Many have also used his now-reversed policy that resulted in thousands of families being separated at the border as a further justification for pushing legislation.
Conservative Freedom Caucus member Rep. Scott Perry, R-Pennsylvania, who voted against the compromise bill he helped negotiate, said the party was not staying true to Trump’s campaign pledge with that bill.
“We need to do what the voters want, which is what the President ran on,” Perry said. “Border security, fix this situation with DACA, but they want to know that the border’s secure and we know who’s coming in and what they’re about.”
Moderates running in competitive districts, however, dismiss talk of “amnesty” in reference to DACA, saying they don’t agree that the House majority rests on rejecting citizenship for undocumented immigrants and embracing hardline policies.
“I disagree, polling doesn’t say that,” said California Rep. David Valadao, who helped lead the effort to get a compromise to the floor. “I don’t know if the House majority is resting on just one issue, there’s a lot of things going on, but I think solving the issue, securing the border, making sure the base is happy, but also addressing the issue of DACA is a good front. Now … obviously the new issue of separation of families has to be addressed.”
“It’s just dishonest,” said Florida Rep. Carlos Curbelo, also a leader among the moderates. “It’s dishonest and a lot of the people saying these things have a personal interest. They’re either trying to get ratings for their TV or radio shows, who knows who’s paying Steve Bannon these days, this is what these people do. They use these issues to advance their own personal interests.”
Bannon, the President’s former chief strategist, hammered the conservative message home in the lead-up to the House immigration bill vote.
“Lou Dobbs said, and I believe, if you support this bill, I think this is the way the deplorables don’t come out, I think this is a way potentially lose 50 seats,” Bannon said on ABC’s “This Week” in June. “Otherwise, I think we run the tables.”
Bannon also visited Capitol Hill as the party was debating a path forward. Bannon spoke to a gathering of conservatives on June 13 organized by Iowa Rep. Steve King, known for his outspoken anti-immigrant stance.
As House Speaker Paul Ryan relayed Trump’s support for an immigration compromise before most of his conference on a different floor of the Republican haunt just off the Capitol, Bannon whipped against the bills, King said.
“If the House votes for amnesty, then it will deflate the base, and they’ll feel betrayed, and they’ll stay home,” King said, paraphrasing Bannon’s pitch. “And that we could lose the majority over that, and if that happens, then it’s almost a certainty that Democrats would impeach President Trump.”