Some of the House's toughest immigration control advocates and their supporters are lining up behind a plan to allow DACA recipients to stay in the country legally — a major lurch for conservatives who usually want undocumented immigrants sent back to their home countries.
Faced with a White House that wants to create a path to citizenship for 1.8 million young immigrants who entered the country illegally, as well as a Senate that wants to strike a compromise, staunch conservatives are rallying around a House plan they hope will at least help them regain control of the debate.
House leaders are working furiously this week to gauge support for the plan crafted by Reps. Bob Goodlatte, R-Va., and Mike McCaul, R-Texas. A top immigration control group, NumbersUSA, is urging its 9 million members to lobby aggressively for that proposal.
“We in the House are responsible for a good bill, putting it forward sticking with it, because a lot of us aren’t going to settle for just anything just because the Senate wants us to,” Rep. Ralph Norman, R-S.C. said of the plan Wednesday. “This is a watershed moment in my opinion… this was the 2016 election.”
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So far, the Senate has dominated Washington’s immigration reform debate. Multiple groups with senators from both parties are scrambling to assemble proposals. GOP leaders in that chamber are preparing to vote on what is essentially President Donald Trump's plan. Other Republicans are courting Democrats to find common ground.
The House plan goes much further in advancing conservatives’ immigration priorities that the Senate would likely be able to pass. Major legislation requires 60 votes to advance in the Senate, and Republicans control 51 seats.
But the House has a 238 to 193 seat Republican majority. It usually takes 218 votes for a majority.
"We think it’s extremely important for the House to lay down this marker on a pretty good immigration bill, while the Senate is in all likelihood going to pass something much, much weaker," said Chris Chmielenski, NumbersUSA director of content and activism.
GOP leaders in the House have plenty of reason to be wary of a vote on an issue that's incredibly divisive even within the party. The House has not taken a major vote on immigration legislation in nearly 11 years, and Republican campaign operatives fear a 2018 vote could hurt incumbents in GOP primaries.
But the right doesn’t want to wait until after the primary season. They say letting the Senate go first on immigration could force Washington accept a proposal that doesn’t go far enough to advance conservative principles.
"If they just let [the Goodlatte bill] fall by the side and wait for the Senate to act, that opens the door” for House Republican leaders to call a vote on whatever the Senate passes, said Chmielenski.
House conservatives are weighing what leverage they can use to push their own leadership.
Rep. Mark Meadows, R-N.C., who chairs the conservative Freedom Caucus, said Wednesday that House Speaker Paul Ryan could lose his job if he gets immigration “wrong.”
The House does have its own major proposal backed by Republicans and Democrats. It was crafted by Reps. Will Hurd, R-Texas, and Pete Aguilar, D-Calif., and has more than 50 co-sponsors from both parties.
House GOP leaders quickly pushed that plan aside in favor of the House conservative plan.
That plan, the Securing America's Future Act, hardly represents all of what hardline conservatives wanted or expected on immigration when Republicans took control of the White House and Congress 13 months ago.
The package offers the roughly 700,000 recipients of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program renewable three-year residency permits. Immigration control advocates such as NumbersUSA call that “amnesty.”
McCaul said the plan will “secure our borders, better support our frontline defenders, strengthen interior enforcement, and get tough on those who break our immigration laws.”
It includes a host of immigration and enforcement reforms that conservatives want, such as ending the diversity visa lottery, requiring employers to use a verification system, and reducing the categories of relatives who qualify for family-based migration.
“This is a pretty unprecedented move for us… it’s the first time in our 22-year history that we’ve supported a bill that actually has an amnesty in it,” Chmielenski said of the Securing America's Future Act.