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Immigration reformers eye Gang of 8 revival

6 Jul

By Seung Min Kim and Burgess Everett

Lindsey Graham doesn’t sugarcoat his prediction: Republicans are going to get thrashed in the November election, especially among Latinos. And it’s going to trigger another run at immigration reform in Congress next year, the South Carolina senator says.

“I’ll tell you what I’m going to do in 2017,” the plainspoken GOP deal maker said in a recent interview. “I’m going to take the Gang of Eight bill out, dust it off and ask anybody and everybody who wants to work with me to make it better to do so.”

Graham isn’t the only one eyeing a revival of the Gang of Eight, the bipartisan group of senators that shepherded a sweeping immigration bill through the Senate three years ago only to watch it stall in the House a year later. Propelled by a Republican establishment eager to make inroads with minority voters after losing them by steep margins in the 2012 election, it was the closest Congress came in a generation to overhauling the nation’s immigration laws,

Several influential lawmakers see another opening for immigration reform in 2017, especially if Hillary Clinton wins and the GOP takes another hit among Latinos. Mitt Romney was hammered for his “self-deportation” rhetoric four years ago. But that pales in comparison to Donald Trump’s vow to remove 11 million immigrants here illegally and calling Mexicans who cross the border illegally “rapists” and “murderers.”

Gang of Eight leader Chuck Schumer is poised to become majority leader if Democrats take the Senate this year. And the New York senator already said immigration reform would be a top priority, most recently in an interview last week. The recent Supreme Court deadlock that left President Barack Obama’s controversial executive actions on hold demonstrated that, for now, major changes to the nation’s immigration policy will have to come from Capitol Hill.

Republicans are also under increasing pressure to act. Several GOP senators from Latino-heavy states — such as David Perdue of Georgia and Thom Tillis of North Carolina — were elected in 2014 and are eager to dig into the issue.

At the same time, immigration advocates are laying the groundwork for a reform push in 2017. They’re having conversations with lawmakers and holding events away from Washington meant to cultivate support on the ground, particularly among conservative constituencies, for immigration reform.

“The hour [when] we can move it, we’ve got to move it,” said Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.), another member of the Gang of Eight, which formed after the 2012 election. “If they don’t [understand the urgency], we’ll do another autopsy after the next election and we’ll determine we’ve got to do it.” He was referring an in-depth review of what went wrong for Republicans in 2012 that implored the party to improve its standing among Latinos by embracing immigration reform.

Though Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) has long been more receptive to immigration reform than his predecessor, John Boehner, any action next year is likely to start in the Senate. That means voters will choose this fall whether it’s a Republican majority taking a stab at a piecemeal approach or a Democratic one that recruits reform-minded GOP senators for a comprehensive proposal.

Even if a broad political will to tackle reform emerges, Congress will face the same obstacles that have stymied reform in the past. For one, Republicans believe more than ever that immigration can’t be tackled in one single package, while Democrats want all pieces of reform combined.

And that’s before lawmakers delve into thorny policy issues, such as what should happen with the millions of people living here illegally, how many new immigrants to allow in per year, and how to tighten border security, especially in the age of heightened terrorism fears.

Another dilemma is Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.). A rising star in the Republican Party when he was recruited to join the Gang of Eight more than three years ago, he backed away from his signature legislative achievement when he ran for president this year.

“I don’t believe that a comprehensive approach can pass, nor do I believe at this point, given everything that’s transpired, that it’s the right way forward,” said Rubio, who recently announced he would run for reelection. That was a position he stressed repeatedly during his presidential bid when the conservative base accused him of backing “amnesty.”

Asked whether he would be interested in getting the Gang of Eight back together, Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) said: “Well, two of the eight, two Republicans have disavowed the entire effort.” He said he was referring to Rubio and Sen. John McCain of Arizona.

“I don’t want to question their motives or suggest that they’re going to have a change of heart and be interested in the issue again,” Durbin said. “The problem is still there.”

New Jersey Sen. Robert Menendez, another Democratic member of the Gang of Eight, said he is “certainly open” to reviving the dormant group. But he argued against piecemeal reform, saying it quickly would become untenable. For instance, if Congress begins to move on more visas for Silicon Valley, the seafood industry will want foreign workers, he said. Then the broader agricultural sector will demand its own reforms, which will spur advocates for push harder for those living here without papers. And so on, Menendez said.

“Before you know it, it’s like Jell-O. You can’t push it on one side and just expect it not to pop out on the other side,” he said. “There’s always going to be a demand. That’s why comprehensive (reform) is the way to deal with the totality.”

But one top Republican, Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn of Texas, called the Gang of Eight template a “non-starter.”

The legislative dynamics of immigration reform will be framed by the presidential race, and the two candidates could not provide a sharper contrast on the contentious issue.

Trump’s ascendance in the GOP has been attributed to his hard-line views on immigration: the repeated vows to “build a wall” (and make Mexico pay), to rapidly deport undocumented immigrants and to bar Muslim foreigners from entering the United States.

Clinton has embraced a liberal immigration policy and promised to take up reform the first 100 days in office. She had also vowed to expand Obama’s executive actions, though the Obama administration had already pushed presidential powers to the brink.

Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.), who has worked methodically to kill past comprehensive immigration reform efforts on Capitol Hill, said the results in November will play a major role in whether Congress decides to take up the perennially difficult issue again, and what it would look like.

“The presidential election is just decisive on the whole situation in the sense that Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama seem quite comfortable with the lawlessness that we have and seek constantly to increase immigration lawfully,” Sessions said. “A Trump victory means that we will, I think in [a] rather short period of time, end the lawlessness at the border and will bring the country around to what I think a substantial majority favor.”

If the Senate takes up immigration reform in 2017, the chamber will face a notably different makeup than the body that passed the Gang of Eight bill by a 68-32 vote in 2013. The 2014 midterms ushered in a new class of Republicans, and a handful of them seemed keen in interviews to take up immigration next year, regardless of which party controls the Senate.

Sen. Steve Daines (R-Mont.) says he’s interested in bolstering visas for high-skilled workers. Perdue, a former businessman, stressed the need to overhaul the legal immigration system to boost the economy. Sen. Cory Gardner (R-Colo.), who hails from a heavily Latino state, said he’s optimistic there could be a bill-by-bill approach that appeals to both parties.

And Tillis has already worked during his short time in Congress to bolster visas for the seafood industry, a big presence his coastal state. As for those already here illegally, Tillis said population needs to be addressed after criminals are deported and steps are taken to control the border, such as the construction of a “virtual wall” with drones and sensors.

“These are ways to actually build on those successes and then have a dialogue about dealing with the illegally present,” Tillis said. “Under no circumstances should anyone be led to believe that that is just blanket amnesty.”

During the past several months, optimistic immigration advocates have been working away from Washington to try and build a groundswell of support for an overhaul. The National Immigration Forum has organized more than 90 meetings this year, with faith, law enforcement and business officials talking up the need for reform., the pro-immigration reform group led by Facebook co-founder Mark Zuckerberg, hosted several events on the issue in June.

It’s far from certain, though, that another reform push would get any farther than last time. Win or lose in November, Trump has demonstrated the potency of the issue among the Republican base; GOP lawmakers will be wary of crossing that constituency. Plus, Republicans are heavily favored to retain control of the House.

McCain, for one, wouldn’t even discuss the possibility of another run at reform. The 2008 presidential nominee, who faces an unexpectedly tough reelection race this year, has long championed immigration reform, albeit with occasional lurches to the right.

“All I focus on is my election. Then I set the agenda for the next year,” said the former Gang of Eight member. “I’m very superstitious about that.”