Immigration Battle Brewing in the GOP

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Republicans are barreling toward a fight over immigration policy that could expose deep divisions in the party.

A renewed push by GOP Sens. Tom Cotton (Ark.) and David Perdue (Ga.) to crack down on legal immigration is threatening to pit President Trump, who endorsed their legislation, against GOP senators who want broader reforms.

The bill, which got a White House rollout on Wednesday, would fundamentally overhaul the immigration system. It would curtail the number of legal immigrants admitted into the country, cutting the total roughly in half.

The legislation, supporters say, would help enshrine a shift in Republican Party politics that was prominent in Trump’s campaign rhetoric, where he frequently warned that immigrants were taking American jobs.

“As a candidate I campaigned on creating a merit-based immigration system that protects American workers and tax payers,” Trump said at the White House while standing next to Cotton and Perdue.

The measure faces a difficult path to 60 votes in the Senate, which would require the support of at least eight Democrats, not to mention every GOP senator — a scenario that appears highly unlikely.

Pressed Wednesday about how the bill could pass Congress, White House aide Stephen Miller said the legislation represented a “major promise” to Americans.

“This is what President Trump campaigned on. He talked about it throughout the campaign, throughout the transition, and since coming into office,” said Miller, who was formerly a staffer for then-Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.), one of the Senate’s most vocal immigration hawks who is now attorney general.

But many in the GOP are opposed to reshaping the party’s immigration policies in Trump’s image

Critics of Trump’s approach fear opposition to immigration reform will damage the party’s long-term electoral chances, given the nation’s growing Latino and Asian populations. Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton won 65 percent of the Latino and Asian vote in the 2016 presidential election, according to exit polling.

There are already early signs of pushback from multiple factions within the Senate GOP conference to the legal immigration limits, including members who are worried about the impact on businesses.

Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.), the chairman of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs, said there could be an “awful lot” in the bill that he could support but warned against limiting his state’s labor pool.

“Dairy farmers need migrant labors. … So we really need to take a look at the reality of the situation,” Johnson, who has close ties to the business community, told reporters. “I don’t want to limit what our economy needs.”

Cotton, responding to some of his colleague’s criticism, noted the legislation wouldn’t touch the guest worker program, which allows immigrants to temporarily come into the country.

Meanwhile, Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), part of the “Gang of Eight” that helped craft the 2013 immigration bill, ripped the Cotton–Perdue proposal within hours of its White House rollout.

“If this proposal were to become law, it would be devastating to our state’s economy, which relies on this immigrant workforce,” Graham said.

He added he is worried the legislation “incentivizes more illegal immigration,” saying “after dealing with this issue for more than a decade, I know that when you restrict legal labor to employers it incentivizes cheating.”

Illustrating the wider disagreement in the GOP about immigration policy, Graham has worked on two bills this year with Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) that would allow undocumented immigrants brought into country as children to remain here legally, at least temporarily.

GOP Sens. Jeff Flake (Ariz.), Dean Heller (Nev.) and Lisa Murkowski (Alaska) have signed on to at least one of Graham’s bills. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), who is currently undergoing treatment for brain cancer, also signaled earlier this year that he was opposed to attempts to crack down on legal immigration.

The Cotton–Perdue bill seems likely to rekindle the long-running debate over which section of the party — those who want broader immigration reforms or the protectionist strain that rose to new prominence with Trump — has the public’s support.

The legislation would curb the number of green cards, which give immigrants permanent residence, issued each year and establishes a “merit-based” points system for individuals who want to come into the country.

Cotton and Perdue will have to walk a political tightrope to get their bill enacted. They will be under pressure from moderate GOP senators and Democrats to make fundamental revisions to their bill, but any move to make it more lenient toward or address undocumented immigration could erode conservative support.

Perdue said for the moment he is focused on trying to garner support for the legislation.

“We have had conversations with them. We’ve met with [Senate Judiciary Committee] Chairman [Chuck] Grassley. … We know we’re going to work it through committee and go regular order, obviously. What we’re trying to do right now is garner support inside the Senate,” he said, when asked if he has talked to GOP leadership.

The bill could face its first test in the Senate Judiciary Committee, where Republicans have a two-seat advantage. Graham and Flake are both members of the committee and signaled concern about an earlier version of the legislation rolled out in February.

Meanwhile, Sen. John Cornyn (Texas), the No. 2 Senate Republican, is working on a border security bill that is expected to include some immigration components. That legislation is expected to unveiled on Thursday.

Asked if his legislation could be wrapped in with border security, Perdue said he wants the bill to move on its own.

“What we’ve done in the past with these immigration issues is we keep adding on and adding on and adding on. I think this one stands on its own merit,” he said.

Republican lawmakers have shown little appetite for another big debate on immigration.

But once Trump makes a decision on the 750,000 immigrants who are protected from deportation by former President Barack Obama‘s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, they might not be able to avoid one.

Johnson warned against trying to package the legislation into a broader immigration bill.

“I don’t think we do a very good job at it. … If you demand comprehensive, you pretty well limit what you can accomplish,” he said.

Moderate GOP senators and Democrats will also be under pressure from conservative outside groups, not to mention the White House, to support the Cotton–Perdue bill.

Perdue noted that while it was early, he was hopeful that he would be able to win some Democratic backing for the bill.

“We’re trying to now get coordinated and start moving out to develop Republican and Democratic support,” he said. “I just think that we’ve got an opportunity to get some bipartisan support.”

There are 10 Senate Democrats running for reelection in states Trump won in 2016, and those members could face pressure to support tougher immigration laws.

“Ultimately members of Congress will have a choice to make … and whatever happens as a result of that would be somewhat predictable,” Miller said.

But Democratic senators are showing no immediate signs of being willing to support the bill. The earlier version of the legislation, introduced in February, garnered zero cosponsors.

“Instead of focusing on xenophobic half measures, the Trump administration should support comprehensive immigration reform and help create a pathway to citizenship for the millions of immigrants who are our family members, neighbors, co-workers and friends,” said Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.).

“Still shocking to see senior WH staff misunderstand American values,” Sen. Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii) said on Twitter. “I just realized I should be more specific. I’m talking about Miller.”

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