Reps. Will Hurd, a Texas Republican, and Pete Aguilar, a California Democrat and whip for the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, have been quietly working for weeks to develop their legislation, which the two sophomore lawmakers are releasing as a discussion draft as talks heat up on DACA ahead of a government funding deadline January 19 being used as leverage in Congress. The hope is, they say, that putting out a bipartisan proposal could speed up talks about resolving the issue.
The plan aims to be “as narrow as possible,” Hurd told CNN in an exclusive joint interview with Aguilar on Sunday night about the proposal.
The legislation draws heavily from other proposed legislation, a conscious decision by the two congressmen to lean on language that has already been vetted by committees and lawmakers, they say.
At the core of the deal would be a legislative way to enact DACA, an Obama administration program that protected young undocumented immigrants who came to the US as children from deportation that Trump has decided to end.
The bill would offer qualifying individuals the ability to get in line for a green card and eventual citizenship after years of conditional residency, provided they meet certain requirements, including a background check and work, education or military service requirements. The bill doesn’t make explicit reference to sponsoring relatives, but the bill summary notes that existing law would prohibit parents of these individuals who came to the US illegally to apply for a visa to come back without returning to their home country for at least 10 years before applying and the bill does nothing to erase that requirement. That addresses “chain migration,” or family-based migration, that Trump says he wants to cut.
Other provisions include increasing the number of immigration judges and attorneys, as the Justice Department has sought, to reduce the lengthy backlog of cases in immigration courts that cause people to stay in the US in limbo for years. The bill also coordinates efforts to improve conditions in Central America, to address factors that send undocumented immigrants to the US.
For the border, the bill draws heavily from Hurd’s “smart wall” bill that would direct the Department of Homeland Security to gain “operational control” of the border by the end of 2020 through “technology, physical barriers, levees, tools and other devices,” according to a bill summary shared with CNN.
Both lawmakers said they hope the deal can provide a basis for Congress to resolve the DACA issue, which Trump has said he wants replaced but only if paired with his border wall and some other immigration fixes.
Leadership has not officially blessed Hurd and Aguilar’s work, but party leaders on both sides, including the White House, have been looped in on its development, the lawmakers said.
“This is a DACA and border security fix,” Hurd said. “And if there’s other elements that have to be included in a broader deal to get signed into law, this is a foundation for that conversation.”
Aguilar said he has been whipping “in the weeds” on the issue, and Hurd has been working on his side of the aisle. Neither gave numbers of supporters, though Hurd estimated “dozens of Republicans” could back it.
“This is the building block that would have bipartisan support if it was on the floor tomorrow,” Aguilar added. “I feel confident about that. I feel the same as Will, if there are other pieces that have to come to get a signature, we’ll take a look.”
Both lawmakers were elected in 2014, both defeating incumbent congressmen of the opposite party, and both defended their seats in rematch challenges in 2016.
The partnership evolved out of Congressional Hispanic Caucus efforts to engage Republicans and see what they could support, Aguilar said. He even checked with his colleague Democrat Beto O’Rourke, whose district neighbors Hurd’s and who did a 24-hour livestreamed road trip with him to DC. O’Rourke affirmed that Hurd could be trusted, Aguilar said.
Both noted that they were not in Congress for previous immigration reform battles, unlike some of their counterparts in the Senate and broader House negotiations, something they see as an advantage.
“I think it grew out of two folks that, we don’t have all the wounds from all the other in-fights over these topics,” Hurd said.
“We’re having really substantive discussions in a way that some of our colleagues can’t because they’re trying to fight the battles from 10 and 15 and 20 years ago, or because this isn’t something that they work with or see a lot,” Aguilar added.
Aguilar represents the whip operation of the Hispanic caucus, which has been one of the leading voices on the left and closely listened to by Democratic leadership in negotiating a deal.
Hurd’s district in Texas contains the most border of any lawmaker in Congress, from the outer ring of El Paso on the western edge of Texas to the region due south of San Antonio in the middle of the state. It includes more than 800 miles of border with Mexico, which is more than one-third of the entire US-Mexico border. It’s also a district Hillary Clinton won in the last election and has a heavy Hispanic population.
That combination of knowledge, the duo says, was key.
“From my perspective, he has the most knowledge of issues that are going on in a border district than any member I’ve worked with or talked to, period, irrespective of party affiliation,” Aguilar said.
“This is about solving the problem, and the only way you solve the problem is to do it with people that have the respect of their colleagues and knowledge of the problem, and that is Pete Aguilar,” Hurd said.