It’s Going to Be a Messy Immigration Week on Capitol Hill

DACA, border security, and family separation are all coming to a head.

House Democrats protest the administration's family separation policy in Washington.
House Democrats protest the administration’s family-separation policy in Washington. MANDEL NGAN/Getty Images

The House of Representatives is expected to vote later this week on two Republican immigration bills, one of which is strictly conservative while the other is marginally less so. At the moment, it is not entirely clear that either can pass, that President Trump would sign the marginally less conservative one in the rare event it got that far, or that either will address the family-separation crisis in a humane or thorough fashion.

The first bill, co-authored by Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte and Homeland Security Committee Chairman Michael McCaul, would allow undocumented immigrants who were brought here as children, and who are currently beneficiaries of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, to apply for renewable legal status, in exchange for full border-wall funding, sharp cuts to legal immigration, crackdowns on “sanctuary cities,” and so on. It won’t pass. The “compromise” legislation, negotiated between conservative and moderate Republicans, offers a longer period of legal status to a wider pool of Dreamers and, eventually, a fighting chance at citizenship. It too funds the wall, eliminates the diversity visa lottery, cuts certain family-immigration visas, and heightens standards for asylum-seekers.

House Speaker Paul Ryan last week told his conference that President Trump was “excited” about the possibility of signing the compromise bill, saying he had worked “hand in glove” with White House staff. When asked on Friday whether he would sign this more “moderate” proposal, though, President Trump said he “certainly” would not. House Republican leaders were planning to begin whipping support for the bill during a Friday morning vote series but called it off as they sought assurances from the White House. Unnamed White House officials quickly emerged to say that the president was confused, had misspoken—perhaps triggered into defiance by the use of the word moderate—and that he wholeheartedly supports the legislation.

Well, unnamed White House officials say a lot of things. Members of the House Republican conference, who don’t want to vote for a bill granting even one undocumented immigrant legal status without complete and consistent cover from the president, will want to hear it from the man himself. They’ll get their opportunity late Tuesday afternoon, when the president visits the Capitol to address a GOP conference.

Even if (as one expects) Trump tells them that he would sign the compromise legislation, members might already be too spooked to go forward with a difficult vote. The bill isn’t going anywhere in the Senate, and Trump could just change his mind again. It’s obvious enough that certain conservatives, who entertain the fantasy that the president killing the compromise bill might bring enough votes to the Goodlatte bill as the only alternative, have Trump’s ear.

Neither bill does much to address the family-separation crisis on the border, which became the central flashpoint in the immigration debate over the weekend. Though House Republicans, in releasing their discussion draft of the compromise legislation last week, tried to portray it as putting an “end” to family separation, it doesn’t. There is one line in the bill overruling the 1997 Flores settlement, which dictates the conditions under which children at the border can be detained: “There exists no presumption that an alien child who is not an unaccompanied alien child should not be detained, and all such determinations shall be in the discretion of the Secretary of Homeland Security.”

Without addressing the administration’s “zero-tolerance” policy itself, this just makes it easier to detain families indefinitely. As Vox’s Dara Lind writes, “It doesn’t even specify that there are any additional conditions on how children can be detained—there’s nothing preventing the Trump administration from simply putting children in existing ICE detention centers for adults, rather than expanding detention centers designed for families.”

Even if the language is improved, though, there’s growing discomfort from some Republicans on the Hill over the administration’s strategy of using encaged babies who’ve been forcibly separated from their parents as leverage to secure hawkish immigration policies. As senior Michigan Rep. Fred Upton, for example, said in a statement, “It’s never acceptable to use kids as bargaining chips in political process.” (Encaged babies are the second class of human beings that the administration has taken hostage in an effort to secure an immigration deal. Let’s not lose sight that this entire legislative clown show began last year when Trump ended DACA.) Kansas Sen. Pat Roberts, not known to be a warm and cuddly type, also came out against the White House’s rationale behind family separation on Monday.

What they’re beginning to hint to the administration is that it needs to end the “zero-tolerance” policy for prosecuting undocumented immigrations because it’s killing them politically.