New Life for Immigration Overhaul Budding in Congress

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By Laura D. Francis

Sen. Thom Tillis (R-N.C.) could be emerging as one of the leaders in a new push to get an immigration overhaul through Congress.

North Carolina’s junior senator March 2 took a step back from President Donald Trump’s call for a wall across the entire southern border and proposed a “series of measures” that would add up to a “comprehensive solution” to the problems in the current immigration system. “We’ve got to get away from the concept of building a wall” and look at the “practical reality” of securing the border, Tillis said at an event sponsored by the Bipartisan Policy Center.

But Tillis was clear that any immigration overhaul effort must be “done in concert with the administration.”

“There are a number of issues here that the administration would like to see solved,” former Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour (R) told Bloomberg BNA. In particular, he said, it’s likely that Trump would want to see Congress codify the deferred action for childhood arrivals program, President Barack Obama’s initiative to protect young, undocumented immigrants from deportation. “I’m very optimistic about this,” said Barbour, co-chairman of the BPC’s Immigration Task Force.

Tillis’ vision for an immigration overhaul echoes the piecemeal approach touted by House Republicans in the wake of the Senate’s 2013 passage of a sweeping immigration overhaul bill. But he expressly disavowed the term “piecemeal,” calling instead for packages that are carefully crafted to get enough votes from both sides of the aisle to become law.

DACA Up First

DACA is “probably the first one that we should address,” Tillis said. Not only is the population the program serves especially vocal, but “there’s a silent majority” in support of allowing “dreamers” to stay in the U.S., he said. That could be paired with some kind of border security measure, he suggested.

But DACA likely won’t be addressed imminently, Tillis said. Congress still is considering Trump’s cabinet nominations and soon will be debating another spending measure for the remainder of fiscal year 2017. So a summer or fall time frame is more likely, unless a “direct threat” to the DACA program emerges, he said.

Another potential pairing could be a measure making the E-Verify electronic employment verification system mandatory for all employers and a new temporary foreign worker program, said Michael Chertoff, homeland security secretary under President George W. Bush. Both pieces together “can reduce the flow of illegal workers,” according to Chertoff, another Immigration Task Force co-chairman.

It’s a “myth” that U.S. workers can simply fill the jobs handled by low-skilled immigrants, he said. “The reality is the work is hard and it doesn’t pay very well,” Chertoff said. Employers could raise wages, but that would lead to higher prices and an inability to compete in the global economy, he said.

Some “level of trust” is “a really critical element of this,” Chertoff added. If the immigration system is to be overhauled in “bite-size” pieces, lawmakers need to know that the next piece is going to come up for a vote, he said.

No More Comprehensive Bills

“The concept of pairing, I think, is very important,” said Henry Cisneros, secretary of housing and urban development under President Bill Clinton. But while enacting protections for DACA beneficiaries “makes infinite sense,” so does a system for legalization of other undocumented immigrants, he said.

Cisneros, also a co-chairman of the BPC’s Immigration Task Force, said any legalization effort must ensure undocumented immigrants’ access to citizenship so that it doesn’t create a group of “second-class citizens.”

“I think that people who are close to the political process understand that the moment for a big comprehensive solution has passed,” Cisneros told Bloomberg BNA. “The longer we wait for that, the more people are going to be hurt by the intensification of the enforcement that’s occurring right now,” he said.

“We also want to keep all the stakeholders engaged,” Tillis said. There’s concern that those lobbying for an immigration overhaul will cease those efforts once the piece most important to them is passed, he said. That’s why it’s important not to move too quickly, he said.

But don’t expect immigration rhetoric to change before an overhaul takes place, Tillis said. Although anti-immigrant comments from the far right aren’t helpful, neither are “open borders”-type comments from the far left, he said. We could spend resources on trying to change the narrative, but it makes more sense to spend those resources on addressing the problems with the immigration system so that that narrative no longer has to exist, he said.

To contact the reporter on this story: Laura D. Francis in Washington at

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Peggy Aulino at; Terence Hyland at; Christopher Opfer at

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