Republicans jockey for position on immigration

Republicans are struggling to come to a consensus on legislation to protect young immigrants who came to the country illegally as minors from being deported as soon as next year.

President Trump in September nixed the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, setting up a deadline next year for Congress to take action.

If Congress fails to do so, hundreds of thousands of people could face deportation.

Trump has already signaled he will blame Congress for the failure and has endorsed the idea of legislation, arguing former President Obama simply went too far in creating the program through executive action.

Many Republicans are broadly sympathetic to current DACA recipients, and as a result a deal seems like it could be in reach.

Still, there are a number of tricky issues, notably whether DACA recipients should ever have a path to citizenship and what border security measures will be attached to a legislative fix.

Republicans are jockeying for position ahead of new negotiations with Democrats.

On Wednesday, the House Homeland Security Committee is expected to take up legislation that would include $10 billion for securing the U.S.-Mexico border, including funding for new wall and fencing construction, border defense technology and aerial surveillance like drones.

Senate Democrats have said they will not accept funding for a border wall under any circumstances. The Trump administration has signaled that they would be willing to separate a fight over the border wall from legislation aimed at young undocumented immigrants.

Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn (R-Texas), who attended Monday night's White House meeting, noted there was no "specific discussion" of tying a border wall to a DACA fix during the closed-door dinner.

"The president has kicked this over to Congress as he should, that's the right way to handle it, and so we need to come up with a solution," he said when asked about the meeting.

Asked if the president mentioned the border wall, Sen. David Perdue (R-Ga.) said he didn't want to get into specifics of the White House dinner but they agreed to "keep the scope ... to the legal population. The legal immigration policies."

Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) - who is at the center of the Senate's debate as chairman of the Judiciary Committee - has said he didn't think it was "realistic" to include a U.S.-Mexico border wall in an agreement.

"Any potential deal on DACA has to include robust border security, and by that I don't mean a wall," Grassley added on Tuesday during a Judiciary Committee hearing on the program.

Meanwhile, Sens. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) and Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) have offered the Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors Act, or DREAM Act, but the latest version has only publicly won over three additional GOP senators: Lisa Murkowski (Alaska), Jeff Flake (Ariz.) and Cory Gardner (Colo.).

GOP Sens. James Lankford (Okla.), Thom Tillis (N.C.) and Orrin Hatch (Utah) are pitching what they call a "conservative" alternative to the DREAM Act, called the SUCCEED Act.

The bill, which would largely track with current DACA recipients, would set up a 15-year path to citizenship if undocumented immigrants could meet a series of hurdles.

Conservatives have rallied behind the RAISE Act, introduced by Perdue and Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.), which would cut back on the number of legal immigrants brought into the country each year and focus on "merit based" immigration.

Perdue said his bill was discussed during a White House dinner on Monday night held to on the issue. DACA, interior enforcement and e-verify - a program that allows employers to check if a person is legally eligible to work in the United States - were also discussed as parts of a potential deal.

"Anything is negotiable right? But we have to decide who we're negotiating with and what we're negotiating for. ... These are all parts of trying to fix the legal immigration system," he said.

Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) has also convened a working group that includes both conservatives and more moderate members of the House Republican Conference.

Democrats and outside activists are pushing for a stand-alone vote on the DREAM Act, even as Democratic leadership is acknowledging that any deal would need to be paired with new border security measures.

"If we can sit down and come up with a reasonable list of border security provisions ... I'll join you in that effort," Durbin said to Republicans during the Judiciary Committee hearing on Tuesday.

Republicans warn that a DREAM Act is unlikely to pass after failing to gain traction during previous Congresses. But Durbin and Graham are expected to hold a press conference on Wednesday outside of the Capitol to push for a vote.

The Tillis-Lankford-Hatch bill has also won support from a coalition of outside groups, but some conservative organizations - including Breitbart News, a right-wing news organization overseen by former White House chief strategist Stephen Bannon - have labeled the bill "amnesty." 

"Tillis-Lankford ... is pretty much an amnesty-business-as-usual bill that rewards past lawbreaking without reducing the law-breaking in the future," Roy Beck, the president of NumbersUSA, said in a statement about the bill.

Tillis and Lankford have tried to combat the conservative criticism, noting that by not addressing illegal immigration Congress has "facilitated a form of amnesty."

"It is past time for Congress to stop kicking the can down the road and finally address our border security and immigration problems," they wrote in a Washington Examiner op-ed this week.

Tillis on Tuesday argued the White House needs to be clearer about what Trump would support in any deal.

"It would be very helpful to get from the administration what the priority is," he said.

The White House is expected to release a set of immigration principles. And Stephen Miller - a top White House aide and former aide to then-Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.), now the U.S. attorney general and a hard-liner on immigration - and the White House domestic policy council have reportedly drafted a list of potential immigration policies, which would go beyond the scope of the tentative deal with Democrats.

Rep. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.), the chairman of the House Freedom Caucus, said on Tuesday that it would be a "nightmare" to try to tackle DACA without including other security fixes favored by Republicans.

"I'm not saying comprehensive, I'll say multi-faceted. Comprehensive means big, multi-faceted means a number of different issues to address different aspects of immigration," he said.

But Democrats are sending warning shots that any push by the administration to give into conservative demands could kill a fragile agreement.

"If Republicans continue to insist on measures outside of the DREAM Act and sensible border security that excludes the wall, they're going to risk ruining a bipartisan agreement to protect the Dreamers," Schumer said on Tuesday.

Asked if the White House and Democratic staff were currently actively negotiating, a Senate Democratic staffer noted they were waiting for the White House to send over a border security proposal.

Schumer added that interior enforcement provisions being pushed by some Republicans goes beyond the broad outline reached by Trump and Democrats last month.

"If they're backing off it because of pressure from the hard right, America ought to know, and we ought to know," he told reporters.

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