Indian Wells, Calif. — On paper, the outlook for an immigration deal, either small-scale or comprehensive, has rarely looked grimmer. President Trump and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi detest each other, with Pelosi calling Trump’s vision of border security “an immorality” and the president having outraged Democrats by rescinding protections for those previously covered under DACA and Temporary Protected Status. Migrant chains rush to the border and encounter Border Patrol officers with tear gas, fueling the perception of a lawless mob pounding at the gates of the country. Democratic presidential candidates flirt with the idea of abolishing U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement entirely. The Right sees the Left as effectively desiring open borders; the Left sees the Right as inherently xenophobic.
But leaders and donors in the Koch Seminar Network, the well-funded and powerful network of activist groups, actually think an agreement could be reached this year.
“If you look at the polling, it shows that regardless of the political spectrum, there’s broad support for both border security and then the Dreamers,” says Mark Holden, general counsel of Koch Industries and the network’s point man on the successful push for criminal-justice reform last year. He met with Trump and other conservative leaders at the White House about shutdown negotiations back on January 23. “Now, what that looks like, people may disagree on, but it means doing something positive with the Dreamers, not kicking them out of the country, but some type of either legalization or a path to citizenship. I’ve been in meetings with hardcore Republicans on that issue, and even they acknowledge that.”
Brian Hooks, chairman of the Koch Seminar Network, told assembled attendees of the Koch network’s winter meeting on Monday that the network’s effort to unite a broad coalition to push Congress and the White House had already begun.
“We just got the longest government shutdown in the history of our country, and this issue was at the core,” Hooks said. “When you read the headlines saying this is impossible, it’s understandable. But we see an opportunity to bring the same approach that this network brought to criminal-justice reform, to unite a broad-based policy coalition with groups from the ACLU to people in Silicon Valley, to Fortune 500 companies, to members of the religious community, and a whole lot of people in between. This isn’t wishful thinking; this is already underway.”
Koch network member and donor Art Pope, who runs Variety Wholesalers, a group of 370 retail stores in 16 states, elaborated on how efforts to secure and control the border had to be connected to paths to legalization.
“There’s nothing original when I say the key to either a step-by-step reform or a comprehensive reform is yes, we should, where it is practical, have physical barriers,” Pope said. “I think President Trump should be given credit for backing away from his original campaign rhetoric of literally a concrete barrier from the Gulf to the Pacific, to wanting the steel barriers that the border security says we need. It does stop illegal traffic, and it does channel it better to where they can control it better with a choke point.” He says that additional enforcement for those who overstay visas is also a needed part of a deal.
But Pope also thinks a much broader agreement could be possible once the enforcement measures were guaranteed. “We do need to deal with the issue of the illegal immigrants who are already here and who have not committed other crimes — not just the DACA children but the millions of other ones here — and how to give them legal status. Personally, I don’t believe in citizenship. I think if you came here illegally, you forfeited your citizenship.”
He adds that “on legal immigration, I think there’s a pretty broad-based consensus, at least among Republicans, that family-chain immigration needs to stop, the lottery-based immigration needs to stop, and let it be merit-based on what skills you bring.” Pope said that he’d like to see higher levels of legal immigration, once the skills and merit-based criteria were in place.
Holden notes that senators with dramatically different philosophies were able to find enough worthwhile in the criminal-justice reform legislation and says that there might be daylight for a similar agreement on an immigration deal.
“I was watching the Senate vote that night, and people were really happy,” Holden said. “The next day I was chatting with [Minnesota senator] Amy Klobuchar, and I asked her what it was like, and she said it was great. It was her, and maybe Mike Lee, and [Chuck] Grassley, and they were just sitting and yucking it up between votes, and they seemed happy about it, too, in a place where everybody seems not very happy about what’s going on lately.”
The Kochs and their organizations are often perceived as more Republican than they are, partially because of the scathing criticism from Democratic officials and the endless label of “shadowy” in attack ads, and because of the network’s past financial support for GOP figures such as Wisconsin governor Scott Walker, Utah senator Mike Lee, and other Republicans often associated with the Tea Party movement. And their agenda does overlap with the GOP’s considerably — low taxes, fewer regulations, school choice, free trade, and right-to-work. But during the push for criminal-justice reform, they aligned with a variety of groups and figures they had tangled with in the past, and they appear prepared to make similar alliances in their effort on immigration.
For the network, successful activism requires an often-shifting arrangement of issue-based alliances — today’s ally on one issue may be tomorrow’s foe, and vice versa. Charles Koch told the gathered attendees, “All of this activity is guided by this underlying philosophy of uniting with anyone to do right.”
The image of the Koch network is often oversimplified; because the network’s member activist groups focus on particular issues, it’s not unheard of for one group to praise particular lawmakers shortly after another group publicly criticized them. Last year, Concerned Veterans for America hosted an event with Texas senator Ted Cruz, a few months after the Libre Initiative criticized him for his stance on DACA.
An immigration deal is at the top of the Koch network’s wish list for 2019, but there are other priorities, including ensuring that the reforms of last year’s First Step Act are implemented effectively and dealing with aspects of the criminal-justice system that weren’t addressed in last year’s law. Holden said they want to see changes to how clemency requests are handed by the executive branch.
“The Department of Justice controls [the process], and it’s not fair to either DOJ or the people who want clemency for the DOJ to have such a big role in it,” Holden said. “When they’re the ones who locked people up, they’re doing their job, and now you’re asking them, ‘Should we let them out? Should we undo everything you just did?’ We kind of know the answer.” He said the network would prefer that the federal government adopt a system, similar to that of some states, where clemency requests are reviewed, assessed, and sent on to the president with recommendations from a variety of sources, including advocates and defense attorneys, former judges, and ordinary citizens.
Holden said he wanted to see a push for expanded expungement of criminal records at the federal level, particularly for low-level drug crimes. He added: “Speaking for myself, it would be great if marijuana was decriminalized. I’m not saying make it legal, but it should not be a felony in this day and age. But that might be a bridge too far, so I don’t know if that’s going to happen.”
Loosening the scope, cost, and arduousness of occupational licensing will be one of the network’s top priorities at the state legislative level in 2019. The network contends that in far too many cases, the occupational-licensing requirements are far less concerned with consumer safety than with keeping new competitors out of the market.
Asked how laws such as Mississippi’s infamous requirement that hair-braiders get 300 hours of training end up on the books, Russ Latino, vice president at Americans for Prosperity, answered that “in conversations I’ve had with multiple lawmakers, you’ll ask them why they keep creating new licensing requirements or new boards, and the answer is always, ‘The people in that industry say that it’s necessary.’ That’s the only voice that they ever hear from. And they’re generally not hearing from the public about the impact of these regulations.”
There will also be a pushes for more state-level criminal-justice reforms. John Koufos, national director for reentry initiatives for the organization Right on Crime, described a vicious circle where an impoverished citizen fails to pay a fee or fine from a traffic or parking ticket or other minor infraction, ends up getting additional fees and fines for failures to pay, and then ends up with an arrest warrant — leading to an arrest that takes him away from the opportunity to work to pay the fine that was the problem in the first place. Koufos cited reforms enacted in Mississippi last year that prohibit incarceration for an inability to pay a fee or fine, mandate that state supervision programs accommodate the work schedules of parolees and probationers, and allow judges more discretion in sentencing.
Some media coverage of this week’s winter meeting perceived the network as seeking a makeover, aiming to appear less political in a time of partisan warfare. The Washington Post’s James Hohmann wrote that the network was “aggressively seek[ing] to rebrand itself as kinder, gentler and less political,” and Axios’s David McCabe wrote that the group sounded like it wanted to “leave its past political brawling behind.” But the different tone also reflects that for a libertarian-minded group, a Democratic-controlled House and some new Democratic governors offer opportunities for different priorities from those of the previous era of broader Republican control.
Frank Baxter, a Koch donor who was George W. Bush’s ambassador to Uruguay, agreed that the network had put new emphasis on its work with nonprofits, charities, and community problem-solvers that it likes to call “social entrepreneurs.”
“It’s an evolution,” Baxter says. “When the network started, Charles Koch said something like, ‘We’ve done a lot of think tanks; now it’s time to do a do-tank.’ After a lot of successes like the House in 2010 and the Senate in 2014, we came to realize, or remembered something we already knew, that politics is necessary for the good society but it’s not sufficient. We’re growing, and we adapt to where we are, and what the condition is.”