House conservatives see DACA as an opportunity to make hardline immigration asks

WASHINGTON — As Congress ponders legislation to protect undocumented immigrants who came to the U.S. as children, House conservatives are viewing the effort as their best opportunity to force dramatic changes in the immigration system.

President Trump reversed an Obama-era executive order last month that provided legal protections to undocumented immigrants who were brought into the United States as children. But Trump said he would not start enforcing the directive for six months in the hopes that Congress would find a permanent solution.

In an effort to bring his caucus together on legislation, Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., has said Congress will not simply extend protections to the recipients of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, who are also also known as DREAMers. Instead, Ryan said during an AP Newsmakers event Wednesday, it is important to solve the "root cause of this" and include border security in the legislation.

“I do believe that kicking these 800,000 kids out to countries that they probably have not been to since they were toddlers … is not in our nation’s interest,” Ryan said, before adding: “Doing border security should not be a negotiable thing." He did not specify what border security enhancements would be necessary. Trump campaigned on the promise of a wall along the southern U.S. border that Mexico would pay for.

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., had dinner with Trump on Wednesday night. Following the dinner, Schumer and Pelosi said they had reached an agreement to work on legislation that would include protections for DACA recipients and border security, but no wall. Trump initially denied that an agreement had been made. But by Thursday morning, he said they were "fairly close" to a deal and that the wall would in fact "come later."

Regardless of any deal Trump makes with Democrats, the legislation that ends up on the floor for a vote is ultimately up to the majority party.

Ryan said earlier Wednesday the House will pass legislation with the support of the president and the majority of the GOP conference. If Republicans can stick together, they can pass legislation in the House without a single Democratic vote.

But multiple conservatives suggested this week that border enforcement — or even wall funding — may not be enough to get their vote on a DACA bill.

Rep. Raul Labrador, a hardline conservative from Idaho and a founding member of the House Freedom Caucus, stood up during a Wednesday morning caucus meeting and told members: “This is a golden opportunity for us to fix the immigration system and ... the worst thing we can do is just do DACA and nothing else,” Labrador told USA TODAY, recounting his pitch. He added that both interior security and border security needed to be strengthened. “You lose all your leverage when you say you’re going to do something about DACA and nothing else.”

On Tuesday, White House legislative director of legislative affairs Marc Short said it was possible the White House wouldn’t demand wall funding be included a DACA package to make it easier to pass. Democrats have said that they will not support any money going toward a wall. But Labrador quickly dismissed the comment because, he said, conservatives wouldn’t vote for that legislation.

“The president can actually fix the immigration problem and have a great legacy, he doesn’t want his legacy to be ... we passed a DACA bill,” said Labrador, who was an immigration attorney before coming to Congress.

Labrador said the White House needed to make it clear that if Congress isn't able to pull off full immigration reform in six months, deportations would begin. Labrador said that would provide “leverage” so Democrats would come to the table to negotiate.

“Looking at DACA and the wall are certainly two aspects, but I don’t know that you stop there," North Carolina Rep. Mark Meadows, who chairs the hardline Freedom Caucus, told USA TODAY. "It wouldn’t be just exclusively those. I think you look at a number of other areas to hopefully address as you try to address the entire immigration issue in hopefully a compassionate way."

Meadows said his group of roughly three dozen members has chosen three members to focus on coming up with an immigration plan the group may be able to back. He wouldn’t name the members of the task force, but he did say it would be irresponsible not to include Labrador in the group because of his professional expertise.

Rep. Dave Brat, a Freedom Caucus member from Virginia, told reporters that a fix for DACA could only come after the entire immigration system and U.S. economy were reformed.

“If you do a DACA fix … the problem with that is, it puts up a green light that if you make it into the U.S., 'don’t worry, eventually it’s OK,' ” Brat said. The DREAM Act, a proposal Democrats have offered, would only provide protection to undocumented immigrants who have been in the U.S. for at least four years prior to the legislation being enacted.

Schumer who was part of a bipartisan group that drafted unsuccessful comprehensive immigration reform in 2013, said he would could support border enhancements that do not include a physical wall. But Schumer cautioned there had to be compromise. The bill he supported in 2013 included a path to citizenship for undocumented immigration.

“We want to provide security at the border, we want to do it smartly and we certainly don’t want the symbol of America to the world ... to turn into a wall,” Schumer told reporters Tuesday.

“Strengthening border security we could be for," House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer, D-Md., told USA TODAY. "Strengthening border security because we believe that the borders need to be secure in an age of terrorism. We have to know who comes into this country and who is here," Hoyer said.

Hoyer has teamed up with the Congressional Hispanic Caucus to use a special procedure to try to force a vote on the DREAM Act, which would make Obama's DACA protections permanent.

Hoyer told USA TODAY he believes all 194 Democrats would sign onto the legislation, but it would need two dozen Republicans to sign on to force a vote on the floor.

Unless moderate Republicans join with Democrats in backing the bill, Republicans remain in charge of what immigration legislation makes it to the floor.

Hoyer, Pelosi and leaders of the congressional Asian, black and Hispanic caucuses met Wednesday with House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., to discuss a path forward on DACA.

"I think it was progress in this was a very positive discussion," Hoyer told reporters after the meeting.

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