Politics & Government

New voices, like North Carolina’s Tillis, clash with old guard on immigration reform

From left, Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., Secretary of Homeland Security Kirstjen Nielsen, Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, President Donald Trump, and Sen. Thom Tillis, R-N.C., arrive for a meeting on immigration in the Roosevelt Room at the White House, Thursday, Jan. 4, 2018, in Washington.
From left, Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., Secretary of Homeland Security Kirstjen Nielsen, Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, President Donald Trump, and Sen. Thom Tillis, R-N.C., arrive for a meeting on immigration in the Roosevelt Room at the White House, Thursday, Jan. 4, 2018, in Washington. AP

Veterans with the scars of previous immigration reform battles and new voices hoping to make their mark by solving the vexing issue, such as North Carolina Sen. Thom Tillis, are battling over which bloc is best positioned to lead the ongoing negotiations.

“If we get new players in the game, that will give us a boost. It’s time for them (new players) to raise their voices so people know, it's not just the same people. A lot of us want a solution,” said Rep. Carlos Curbelo, R-Fla.

The second-term Miami congressman cited Tillis as one of the potential players.

Two of the veteran senators, Richard Durbin, an Illinois Democrat, and Lindsey Graham, a South Carolina Republican, presented a bipartisan compromise to President Donald Trump on Thursday.

Trump dismissed it as an “outlandish proposal,” calling it “a big setback for DACA.” Durbin and Graham were part of the “Gang of Eight” senators who in 2013 pushed a comprehensive immigration reform bill through the Senate. The measure went nowhere in the House.

Tillis had been a member of the bipartisan group working with Durbin and Graham until recent weeks. Tillis said this week that he had pulled back from that group, saying it’s “appropriate when you get a point where you may not be on the same page to withdraw to the group of like-minded.”

He has positioned himself, along with Oklahoma Republican Sen. James Lankford, as a proxy for the rest of the Republican caucus and even the GOP-controlled House, knowing that any bill must secure votes from conservative members to become law. Tillis attended a meeting at the White House earlier this month with a different grouping of senators.

“That group has members that for 16 years have tried to get a Congressional outcome,” Tillis said. “And it’s not just about 60 votes, it’s 50 percent + 1 in the House, and I don’t want to make a point to say the Senate is ready to go. I want to make the difference in providing certainty to the DACA population and a more secure border.”

Durbin and Sen. Orrin Hatch, a Utah Republican, introduced the first DREAM Act in 2001 to protect undocumented immigrants who were brought to the country as children. President Barack Obama protected those children from deportation with an executive action, but Trump rescinded that decision last year and gave Congress until March to work out a compromise to protect the population.

There are approximately 800,000 Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals recipients or DACA-eligible people in the United States. North Carolina has about 27,000 residents in the DACA population.

Congress is still looking for a solution to that population, despite various efforts over the last two decades. Conservatives squashed an attempt by President George W. Bush to pass immigration reform during his second term.

“All voices are appreciated when it comes to seeking an immigration compromise, but new voices are likely to be more powerful and effective,” Curbelo said. “The modern history of immigration reform in Congress is a history of failure. It would be helpful to have new voices and new faces. It doesn’t mean those with scares from past battles are not needed, but new protagonists are necessary.”

Tillis has made immigration one of his primary issues, angering some of the right with his willingness to allow DACA beneficiaries a pathway to citizenship. Tillis introduced the SUCCEED Act last year, billed as a conservative alternative to the DREAM Act. He insisted that it be paired with a border security bill, a non-starter for some on the left.

But Tillis’ place in the debate has drawn criticism, too. His name came up several times — and not in a positive manner — at a Jan. 5 pro-immigration forum Washington, D.C.

“We really wanted to illuminate the discussion so the press coverage isn’t just what did Thom Tillis say yesterday as if he invented the debate,” said Frank Sharry, the founder and executive director of America’s Voice, an immigration rights’ group. He also worked for 17 years as the executive director of the National Immigration Forum.

Marshall Fitz, a senior fellow for the Center for American Progress, a liberal group, called out the newcomers to the debate, saying the veterans had a much better understanding of what it would take to get something done.

“Everyone who’s kinda been at this get that this proportionality is critical. The people who are coming into this for the first time, Tillis, (White House adviser Stephen) Miller, and some of these other guys really have no idea who a deal could get done,” Fitz said. “They’re the ones that are calling for 90 percent of the Republican demands and think Democrats are going to take 10 percent of what needs to happen on the other side and that’s just not going to happen.”

McClatchyDC reporters Andrea Drusch and Lesley Clark contributed to this report.

Brian Murphy: 202-383-6089, @MurphinDC

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