A Republican senator is trying to break years of congressional gridlock over immigration with a new plan that would pair changes sought by Democrats with those pushed by his own party.
At a time when President Donald Trump’s promise to build a wall along the southern border is dominating the immigration discussion, Sen. Thom Tillis (R., N.C.) has been talking with a handful of Democrats and Republicans to build support for a broader overhaul. His plan would aim to tighten border security and toughen enforcement of immigration laws—goals often cited by Republicans—while addressing the fate of the roughly 11 million immigrants currently in the U.S. illegally, a Democratic priority.
For Democrats, “this may be one issue where they’re as tired as I am of seeing the parades and not getting to the game,” said Mr. Tillis, who was elected to the Senate in 2014, after the last big Senate immigration debate.
The basic elements of immigration legislation have been known for many years, but the parties haven’t been able to agree on how to enact legislation. Democrats and some Senate Republicans have favored comprehensive legislation that incorporates a wide range of ideas, each appealing to different constituencies. House Republicans have wanted to pass enforcement legislation first and then, at some point in the future, overhaul the legal immigration system and then deal with the people in the U.S. illegally.
What is different about the Tillis approach is that it tackles the issue incrementally—but at every step gives each party something that it wants.
Mr. Tillis is in the early stages of developing his framework, and it isn’t yet clear how much support it would garner from either side of the aisle. It also is unclear whether the White House would go along, as Mr. Trump ran for office with a hard-line message of tougher enforcement and protection for American workers. Previous efforts to enact sweeping immigration changes with bipartisan support have fizzled, most recently in 2013.
But lawmakers and immigration experts said legislative efforts that pair the priorities of many factions stand the best chance of clearing Congress. Measures structured that way are “the only thing that would have a shot to pass the House or Senate,” said Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart (R., Fla.).
Mr. Tillis would enact a comprehensive overhaul of immigration law in increments—but at every step giving each party something it wants. He said his plan is aimed at jump-starting discussions over the order in which to introduce changes to immigration policy so that proponents could secure the 60 votes most bills need to clear the Senate, where Republicans hold a 52-48 majority.
For instance, the first steps under Mr. Tillis’s proposal would tighten border security and deport any illegal immigrants engaged in criminal activities, while also providing some temporary legal status for people brought to the country illegally at a young age by their parents.
Once those two elements were in place, lawmakers could strengthen the enforcement of immigration laws through programs such as e-Verify, an online system companies use to check whether applicants are in the country legally. At the same time, lawmakers could address how to deal with the adult members of the illegal immigrant population.
At a later stage, lawmakers could focus on preventing people from overstaying their visa limits while overhauling some popular work-visa programs, including those for high-skilled foreign workers and low-skilled seasonal workers.
These provisions aren’t fleshed out, and the details would be the subject of contentious fights, if Mr. Tillis’s approach moves forward.
He is likely to face resistance from Sen. Jeff Sessions (R., Ala.), Mr. Trump’s nominee to be attorney general and the loudest critic of expanding legal immigration in the Senate. But Mr. Tillis said he believes he can assuage broader concerns about legal immigration if the bill cracked down on those companies abusing current laws and demonstrating that others are filling jobs that U.S. citizens don’t want.
Mr. Tillis said he was aware that conservative critics are likely to label any effort to allow some illegal immigrants to remain in the U.S. as “amnesty,” while liberal groups are likely to push for a more direct path to citizenship.
Mr. Tillis said different groups among the 11 million illegal immigrants should be eligible for different lengths of protected status and subject to different terms for applying for citizenship, behind those already going through the process legally.
“The left will say it doesn’t go far enough toward open borders…and then the other end of the spectrum, which is: ‘We won’t be satisfied until you collect everyone and send them home,’ which is just not practical nor, do I believe, in the best interests of the U.S.,” Mr. Tillis said.
Tom Jawetz, an immigration expert at the liberal Center for American Progress, said that comprehensive bills are best because the immigration system is interconnected, both substantively and politically. He welcomed Mr. Tillis’s entry to the discussion.
“He’s been an interesting new voice in the conversation and one we want to hear more from,” he said.
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