Lacking a unified strategy on most immigration policy, Republicans are looking to temporarily set aside their differences and highlight an issue that has divided Democrats.
GOP leaders are planning two votes this week or next related to the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency, which some Democrats say they want to abolish.
“It’s the craziest position I’ve ever seen,” Speaker Paul D. Ryan said last week.
The “abolish ICE” movement started as a protest of President Donald Trump’s hard-line immigration policies, but the campaign has divided Democrats.
Some progressive lawmakers and candidates have embraced the push to abolish — or at least restructure — ICE, while more moderate and establishment party members feel the rallying call goes too far and could endanger Democrats’ chances in the midterms.
Republicans are looking to exploit that dynamic by holding a vote on a bill progressive Democrats introduced Thursday that would terminate ICE within a year of Congress enacting “a humane immigration enforcement system” to be designed by a commission the legislation would establish.
The House will also vote on a resolution introduced by Louisiana GOP Rep. Clay Higgins expressing the chamber’s support for all ICE officers and personnel and denouncing calls to completely abolish the agency.
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Democrats say they won’t play the GOP’s political game, with the authors of the bill that would terminate ICE saying they’ll vote against it because it’s not a serious attempt to pass it.
“The caucus is all very clear — and so are the advocates, by the way — that this is just a ploy because this Republican Congress has never passed an immigration bill, not even one that they want to pass,” Washington Rep. Pramila Jayapal said. “So we’ll all vote ‘no’ on it.”
Republicans are still moving forward with the vote despite Democrats’ saying they will be unified in voting against it.
“We think it’s worth the value to show the hypocrisy that here they are trying to play to their base but they won’t even vote on the bill,” Republican Study Committee Chairman Mark Walker of North Carolina said. “Right now they’re in turmoil, so we’re going to allow them to add to it.”
Family separation pivot
Democrats, however, believe it’s the Republicans who are in turmoil. They say they’ll use the floor debate time on the ICE bill to call attention to the issue of migrant family separation that Congress has yet to pass legislation to fix.
Trump issued an executive order to reunify families, a temporary patch to a problem stemming from his administration’s zero-tolerance policy for prosecuting undocumented immigrants detained at the border.
Trump’s solution was to allow parents and children to be detained together while the adults were awaiting judicial proceedings for illegally crossing the border. But a federal judge rejected the administration’s request for the court to overturn a previous ruling known as the Flores settlement that prevents accompanied children from being detained for longer than 20 days.
House Republicans intend to pass legislation to override the Flores settlement, but GOP leaders say they’re still waiting on the administration to say what else it wants to be included in that bill.
Not all members are buying that, however.
“The administration is unambiguous on what they want,” said Freedom Caucus Chairman Mark Meadows, who speaks frequently with Trump and administration officials. “So any suggestion that we’re waiting on the administration is not based on fact.”
The North Carolina Republican said the administration wants legislation that in addition to addressing family reunification will also look at “some of the issues at the border on asylum, credible fear standards, catch and release.”
Certain asylum changes could repel moderate Republicans from voting for the legislation, but Meadows said he believes there’s a path to 218 votes on legislation that would deal with the issues the administration wants addressed.
Walker said he met with a few GOP leaders Thursday to discuss the effort. While he believes they’re back on track in trying to put together a “skinny” bill dealing with family separation, he said there are no decisions yet on whether other provisions would be added to it.
“There’s two or three things [under discussion]. Do you look at the asylum piece, do you put any kind of security in it or do you just keep it as thin as possible?” Walker said.
He declined to further characterize the back-and-forth on those matters but said he hopes a bill will be ready for the House to pass before adjourning for the August recess.
Passing on a promise?
Another issue Republicans have been discussing internally is whether to move forward with a vote GOP leaders promised to have this month on expanding an agriculture guest worker program and requiring employers to use the E-Verify system to check the legal status of their employees.
Several members have started to question whether that vote will actually happen in the remaining two weeks the House will be in session in July.
Rep. Chris Collins said he wants the vote to occur but they’re running out of time to do it in July.
“I haven’t heard much discussion of it, so I’m not optimistic we’re going to see it,” the New York Republican said Thursday.
Some discussion of the guest worker and E-Verify did occur Friday as House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, Majority Whip Steve Scalise and Chief Deputy Whip Patrick T. McHenry hosted a discussion with a small group of “the most vocal stakeholders,” Rep. Randy Weber said.
The Texas Republican said the consensus of the group was to allow leadership to decide whether to move forward with a vote on those issues this month.
“If they think we can get a bill up that’s going to fly, then go for it,” he said. “They just have to count the votes.”
Weber, who is a member of both the Freedom Caucus and the RSC, said he’s tired of people impugning the leadership’s motives and was glad to see some of the participants in Friday’s meeting were willing to give them a pass on their previous commitment.
“There were a lot of well vested people in this process — I won’t tell you who they are — who said, ‘Look, we realized you promised of course to have a vote in July … but we probably need to release you from that promise because we thought that would be predicated on the fact that one of the Goodlatte bills would pass,’” he said.
Weber was referring to two more comprehensive immigration bills authored by House Judiciary Chairman Robert W. Goodlatte that the House rejected last month.
The group agreed that trying to do another comprehensive bill at this stage is not a good idea but was open to “rifle shots” addressing the agricultural guest workers, E-Verify and border security funding, he said.
If Republicans are hoping to draw Democratic support for those piecemeal bills, their messaging votes on ICE probably won’t help. And some in the GOP feel the messaging effort is just a distraction from legislation their majority should be passing.
“Obviously, there are a number of bills we should be considering,” Meadows said, noting a vote on the Democrats’ abolish ICE bill “is not on the top 20 of my priority list.”