Politics & Policy

GOP Conservatives Stand Firm on the Border Crisis

Senator John Cornyn (Ann Heisenfelt/Getty Images)
Congressional conservatives join in their opposition to bills proposed by Cornyn and others.

A revolt is brewing among conservatives who, for policy and procedural reasons, dislike the border-crisis bill proposed by Senator John Cornyn (R., Texas) and other bills under discussion in the House.

“There are people in the House who fully believe that if the president isn’t willing to enforce current law, then why would we pass anything?” Representative Jim Bridenstine (R., Okla.) told National Review Online, adding that he’s still reviewing various aspects of current and prospective law, so he doesn’t necessarily subscribe to that position.

Senator Jeff Sessions (R., Ala.), one of the leading immigration hawks in Congress, has already urged colleagues to forbear passing any legislation until Obama stops threatening unilateral executive action.

“Congress must demand that the President use his lawful powers to begin enforcing the law now — instead of passing legislation on the promise of future enforcement — and that he back down from his plan to widen his disastrous DACA program, which would of course escalate the existing border disaster to unthinkable proportions,” Sessions wrote in a Monday letter.

A memo circulated among conservative Hill staffers makes several critiques of the Cornyn bill and of border-security language written by House Homeland Security Committee chairman Michael McCaul (R., Texas), which is expected to be included in the border-crisis proposal from the House working group.

First, it “leaves President Obama’s amnesty for those who enter the country illegally as minors in place,” the memo states. The proposal “delegates all of Congress’ authority over border security to President Obama, who has proven time and time again that he will not secure the border.”

The memo suggests that the likely House proposal would weaken current law by defining border security as interdiction of 90 percent of illegal border crossings, rather than 100 percent. It also does not require Obama to increase the number of Border Patrol agents or to build any security fence.

Representative Paul Ryan (R., Wis.) summarized what he would like to see the House pass in response to Obama’s supplemental request.

“The ultimate goal ought to be to secure the border, get the resources at the border that you need (and that’s where I think there’s a case for a supplemental; they’re burning through funds) but you’ve got to change the human trafficking law so that we’re not resettling people within the interior of the country, because all that does is create the incentive for more to come,” he told NRO during a Tuesday interview.

A conservative Senate aide pushed back against that proposal, citing Obama’s refusal to enforce immigration laws.

“The conservative position is for the president to do something first before we spend another dime,” the aide told NRO. “The president said [in 2012] that he was not going to deport children who are here illegally in this country; we now have a massive spike of children who are coming here illegally to this country.”

The aide noted that House Judiciary Committee chairman Bob Goodlatte (R., Va.), Sessions, and Senator Mike Lee (R., Utah), among others, have arrayed a number of actions that current law authorizes Obama to take in order to mitigate the current crisis.

“He needs to do all those things, first,” the aide said. “Then, if he really thinks that there needs to be more resources allocated for border agents or whatever, then he needs to make that case.”

Ryan thinks “there’s an opportunity to get some border-security measures in place that we probably otherwise couldn’t have,” he said Tuesday.

In addition to the criticisms of McCaul’s border-security proposals, leveled by Senator Chuck Grassley (R., Iowa), there’s some concern among conservatives that passing border-security legislation could give Senate Democrats the opportunity they want to bring the Senate “Gang of Eight” immigration bill into conference with the House.

“I don’t think that threat is high, but it’s not impossible,” Bridenstine suggested, saying that he’d like assurances that the House would not agree to a conference on the Senate bill.

“I believe there are two separate issues here: One issue is national security and national sovereignty, and that requires border security; and then the other issue is immigration reform, which is something else,” Bridenstine said. “The question is, can we do something on the border and trust that it won’t trigger some kind of comprehensive immigration reform that there isn’t broad agreement on.”

The Senate aide said that immigration hawks would have fewer concerns if Obama reversed his DACA program, enforced current laws, and sent a strong message to the Central American countries from which the children are coming.

“If Obama actually made a good-faith effort to start fixing the problem at the border, you would have a lot less voices in the conservative caucus making that point,” according to the aide. “I think you could get something across the line if the president were willing to act first.”

— Joel Gehrke is a political reporter for National Review Online.

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