House GOP grapples with disagreement over border and immigration legislation

As House Republicans took hold of the majority this year, they had planned to quickly pass a border bill that would allow the Homeland Security Secretary to turn away migrants at the border. But the bill hit a major snag: opposition from GOP moderates.

The delay and disagreement highlights the challenge for House Republican leaders in managing such a slim majority, even for bills relating to issues that drive the party’s top messages.

House Minority Whip Steve Scalise (R-La.) in December included the Border Safety and Security Act in a slate of 12 bills and resolutions that Republicans planned to pass in the first two weeks of the congressional session, by sending them straight to the House floor rather than through a regular process while committees were still being organized.

The border bill would allow the Homeland Security secretary to turn away migrants in order to achieve “operational control” at the border. Republicans have repeatedly accused Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas of not meeting the legal standard of “operational control” at the border by not preventing unlawful entries and contraband.

The Border Safety and Security Act calls back to the 2006 Secure Fence Act, which defines operational control as “the prevention of all unlawful entries into the United States, including entries by terrorists, other unlawful aliens, instruments of terrorism, narcotics, and other contraband.”

“This language — ‘the prevention of all unlawful entries into the United States, including terrorists, other unlawful aliens, instruments of terror, narcotics, and other contraband’ — I think it’s very forgiving to use the word aspirational, I mean, it’s unrealistic,” said Doris Meissner, a former Immigration and Naturalization Service commissioner under former President Clinton, who now heads the U.S. Immigration Policy Program at the Migration Policy Institute.

The definition has been on the books since it was signed into law by former President George W. Bush but has never been used as a real-world metric for border security.

The bill’s limitations on asylum are rankling some Republicans, most likely enough Republicans to doom the proposal.

Rep. Tony Gonzales (R-Texas), who represents a district on the U.S.-Mexico border, has warned that the bill could prevent legal asylum claims.

“One thing that is certain, H.R. 29, the Border Safety and Security Act, is not securing the border, and that is dead on arrival,” Gonzales told “What America’s Thinking.”

“That bill is not going to go anywhere for a wide variety of reasons. And I will do everything in my power to prevent anti-immigrant legislation from getting over the finish line,” added Gonzales, a co-chairman of the 18-member strong Congressional Hispanic Conference, a Republican caucus.

A slim House GOP majority means that any bill not supported by Democrats can be blocked if just five members oppose it. Even if it did pass the House, the bill would almost certainly die in the Democratic-controlled Senate.

Rep. Chip Roy (R-Texas), the lead sponsor of the bill, has said there has been “misinformation” about the bill.

“Let me set the record straight. This legislation does one thing: enforce current law to say that we have to detain for the entirety of the adjudication of a claim, an asylum claim. Or, turn away, like we do under current Title 42 law during a pandemic,” Roy said on PBS earlier this month.

“Tony [Gonzales] ought to read the bill, and read current law,” Roy said. 

Roy told The Hill this week that almost everyone in the House GOP conference supports his bill. It has 64 cosponsors.

But opponents within the party will at least force Roy to negotiate the specifics of any asylum or border security bills.

“I’ll absolutely push back,” Gonzales said.

“There’s many of us in the House – and not just Hispanic members – that will push back against anti-immigrant legislation like the Border Safety and Security Act, that has a great name but fails to meet the mark,” Gonzales said.

With the Border Safety and Security Act stalled, House leadership is working with House Judiciary and Homeland Security committees on a larger border package that it hopes to release later this year.

“We’re doing a larger border security package, so the Judiciary Committee and Homeland Security Committee are both working right now … they are getting to work on a package that could secure our border,” Scalise told NewsNation last month.

And despite the intraparty split on Roy’s proposal, it’s unlikely that any faction of Republicans will cross the aisle to work with Democrats before exhausting their options in-house.

“There is a consensus, clearly, among Republicans that before we do anything else, we need to secure the border. And that’s something that we’re working on. So I feel very optimistic that we’re going to be able to reach a consensus on that issue,” said Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart (R-Fla.), the other co-chairman of the Hispanic Conference.

The border bill is one of five stalled bills and resolutions from the initial list of 12 that House Republicans hoped to pass in the first few weeks, demonstrating how discord in the House GOP conference challenges a slim majority.

Tags Chip Roy Chip Roy House Republicans Mario Diaz-Balart southern border Steve Scalise Tony Gonzales Tony Gonzales

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