The Corner

Politics & Policy

What the House Is Thinking on Immigration

If things bounce the wrong way, the House could put itself on the path to passing a clean DREAM Act as soon as this week. For this to be the only major immigration legislation to pass a chamber of the Republican Congress before the election would, needless to say, be perverse. Which is why intense talks are ongoing among Republicans about how to avoid it.

The background, of course, is the push by moderates for a discharge petition to force action on DACA. The petition is a handful of signatures away from reaching the threshold, and if the moderates want a vote in June, they’d need to push it over the top by Tuesday. So there’s an urgency here. If the discharge petition succeeds, it basically hands control of the floor to Nancy Pelosi and sets up a process where several immigration proposals are voted on and the one that gets the most votes passes — quite possibly a clean DREAM Act.

Moderates in the caucus, one way or another, really want to vote on DACA. The conservatives, for their part, also want a chance to vote on the immigration. The mutual desire to have a vote creates some possibility for common ground, and the factions have been negotiating. A senior Republican aide described to me a possible way to get consensus that has been a focus of the discussions.

It would involve giving temporary status again to DACA recipients, subject to various work and other requirements. After a designated period of time, say, five years, they could apply to become legal permanent residents. This is very conventional. The wrinkle comes in how visas would become available for the DACA recipients. There would be a reduction in current visas in various categories — e.g., the visa lottery — and these visas would be put in “escrow.” Then, the DACA recipients would eventually draw on them to get full legal status.

So there would be an immediate reduction in legal immigration, then a spike back up when DACA recipients began to use the visas in escrow. Finally, there would be a decline again as, at the end of this process, the categories that have contributed the visas kept in escrow are permanently eliminated or reduced.

The advantage of this approach for immigration doves, obviously, is that it gives DACA recipients legal status. The advantage for hawks is that it reduces legal immigration for some period of years and then over the long term — something that hasn’t been on the radar screen of Washington for a very long time. And even when the visas in escrow are used, they would go to people already in the country, not to people outside. It’s also possible that visas currently allocated to family categories could be re-purposed to merit-based immigration.

The devils will be in the details. For instance, will visas really be eliminated and overall immigration reduced at the end of this process? Also, it’s possible that it could take a very long time to put in escrow enough visas to cover the DACA population — if the new DACA programs applies to, say, 1 million people and 50,000 visas a year are put in escrow, we’re talking 20 years. Such a long-fuse will surely make each side in the GOP caucus nervous for its own reasons.

But this is a creative framework that has potential. It would speak well of the House if it arrived at a workable compromise. And any bill would have funding for the wall and other enforcement measures sought by the White House. Even if it got out of the House, a bill would be unlikely to make it into law, but it would at least create pressure on the Senate. House Republicans are still talking. One way or the other, it behooves them to avoid stumbling into the debacle of a successful discharge petition.

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