Hard-Line Immigration Activists Soften Their Opposition to Amnesty
Despite movement, though, experts doubt the Democrats are willing to compromise enough for law to pass
For a sign of how the immigration debate has shifted, look no further than NumbersUSA, an activist organization that for the first time in its history is on the record as supporting an amnesty bill.
It is quite modest compared with the various proposals that the Senate is debating this week. The Securing America’s Future Act, sponsored by House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.), contains stronger border security measures and more significant reductions in legal immigration than the Senate proposals.
Unlike the framework offered by President Donald Trump, the House bill would apply not to 1.8 million illegal immigrants brought as children to the United States — but only to the 690,000 people currently enrolled in the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program created by executive action under Barack Obama.
Also unlike the White House proposal, the bill would grant only legal residency — not a path to citizenship.
Still, NumbersUSA and other hard-liners have moved further than they ever have from a no-compromise position. Chris Chmielenski, director of content and activism at the group, acknowledged that during a conference call with reporters on Wednesday.
“This is a pretty unprecedented move for us … It does include an amnesty, but it limits the amnesty to only the 690,000 DACA recipients,” he said. “And it’s the first time in our 22-year history that we’ve supported a bill that actually has an amnesty in it. But we believe, on balance, it benefits American workers and communities.”
Leaders at the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR) and the Center for Immigration Studies (CIS), another pair of hard-line Washington-based organizations, have said that if Congress must grant amnesty, it should be along the lines of what Goodlatte has proposed — one that limits the benefits and wins maximum concessions.
Trump sparked the current debate in September when he announced he would end DACA but delay its implementation until March 5 to give Congress time to craft a legislative replacement.
Not all border hawks have come out in support of the Goodlatte bill. William Gheen, president of the Americans for Legal Immigration political action committee (ALIPAC), told LifeZette the Goodlatte bill is little more than a Trojan horse to grant amnesty without accompanying reforms. He said promised border security, based on past immigration legislation, likely will never materialize.
New laws are unnecessary, Gheen said, adding that the president has all the tools he needs to enforce immigration restrictions. He lamented that his side of the immigration debate is fractured, preventing the unified front that helped defeat amnesty proposals in 2013 and 2007.
"It's terrible," he said. "Because of NumbersUSA's presence on the Hill, a lot of lawmakers think they speak for our movement."
Gheen said a law that prevents amnesty beneficiaries from getting citizenship likely would be struck down by the courts.
But Ken Blackwell, a conservative activist who was on Wednesday's conference call, said that risk is small.
"I am convinced this would withstand the rigors of litigation," said Blackwell, a former Ohio secretary of state.
Jenny Beth Martin, chairwoman of the Tea Party Patriots Citizens Fund, expressed skepticism during the conference call. She referenced the last mass amnesty, signed by Ronald Reagan in 1986, that failed to end illegal immigration.
"We have gone though this before with President Reagan, and we have been suffering the consequences from it since then," she said. "And our supporters are asking Congress to stop doing this and instead take care of addressing the problems of immigration first."
Chmielenski told reporters that passing the Goodlatte bill would put the House in the strongest possible negotiating position if a bill makes it out of the Senate.
"We think it's pretty important for the House to lay down this marker on a pretty good immigration bill while the Senate is in all likelihood going to pass something much, much weaker," he said.
Chmielenski said the Senate debate is useful if it puts amnesty supporters on record on a host of thorny issues on which Americans favor the hawkish position. He cited a parliamentary maneuver by Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) on Tuesday blocking a vote on a proposed amendment to crack down on "sanctuary cities" that refuse to cooperate with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officers.
Votes on proposals like that could be problematic for Democratic senators who represent the states Trump won in the 2016 election.
"He's obviously protecting them … He doesn't want his members to have to take these difficult votes," Chmielenski said.
Gheen said his strategy is to try to prevent a vote as long as possible.
"We're trying to push it back. The longer the debate takes, the more Americans pay attention to it, and the more opposition grows to it."
Chmielenski said a compromise is possible if Republicans win over enough vulnerable Democrats to reach the magic number of 60 votes to break a filibuster. But he said Democrats appear unlikely to do that — especially if Trump insists Congress include his entire framework as part of any legislation.
"Then I see very little chance of something happening," he said.