Meet the Republican who might cut a Dreamers deal

Meet the Republican who might cut a Dreamers deal

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Originally published by Politico

As Donald Trump was pressing his hard-line immigration platform en route to the GOP nomination last year, Republican Sen. Thom Tillis decided to go in a different direction entirely.

Tillis, a reliable Republican on most issues, approached the No. 2 Senate Democrat, Dick Durbin of Illinois, to discuss the fate of hundreds of thousands of “Dreamers.”

Sooner or later, Tillis thought, they would be at risk — a view that’s come to life after Trump announced last month that nearly 700,000 young immigrants would begin losing legal protections early next year unless Capitol Hill intervenes.

The freshman senator from North Carolina is now making his biggest immigration play yet, unveiling a plan to provide permanent relief to the undocumented immigrants who came here as minors.

If a deal can be done to win over the warring parties and a president who has swung back and forth on the issue, it might start with Tillis, who has methodically carved out a profile as a pro-immigration Republican at a time when the GOP has swerved sharply to the right.

“Not all of the usual suspects have come out on the right opposing the bill because they’ve actually taken the time to read it,” Tillis recently told POLITICO in an interview in his office. And “when you sit down and you talk with left-of-center, reasonable Democrats … then we have people that are having a difficult time opposing it.”

With two other Senate Republicans, Tillis released a bill last month that would create a pathway to citizenship for Dreamers, albeit with more stringent requirements and tougher restrictions than the Dream Act pushed by Durbin and other Democrats.

Liberals bashed it as overly harsh. Immigration hard-liners dismissed it as amnesty, with just a slightly conservative bent. It’s yet to pick up more co-sponsors beyond the original trio: Tillis and Sens. James Lankford of Oklahoma and Orrin Hatch of Utah.

Yet Tillis is optimistic the framework he’s outlined may be the one that could win 60 votes in the Senate and ultimately be signed into law by Trump — who has said he wants to show “heart” to Dreamers but whose White House over the weekend issued a litany of tough demands for any deal.

Even in Trump’s Washington, Tillis has emerged as a classic pro-business Republican when it comes to immigration: He believes more workers from abroad help the economy and that there are jobs Americans simply won’t do. He is open to a pathway to citizenship for the broader population of 11 million undocumented immigrants, but under conditions far more arduous than what he has outlined for Dreamers.

Most of Tillis’ early immigration battles in the Senate centered on protecting temporary visas for seafood workers critical to North Carolina’s economy. He partnered with Democrats — first with former Sen. Barbara Mikulski of Maryland (who good-naturedly nicknamed Tillis “Catfish”) and, more recently, Sen. Mark Warner of Virginia — to bolster the H-2B visa program, which cover immigrants who come to the United States to work as landscapers, ski instructors and housekeepers.

And while it’s mostly been Democrats who’ve held up Trump nominees, Tillis blocked Lee Francis Cissna from winning confirmation as director of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services until the administration sped up a review of the H-2B visa program. Cissna was eventually confirmed last week.

“He’s been a new player,” Ali Noorani, executive director of the pro-reform National Immigration Forum, said of Tillis. “Not just a new player, but on an issue where we’ve been frankly starving for new talent.”

But Tillis’ efforts at recruiting more foreign workers into the United States and now drafting Dreamer-focused legislation has earned him few fans from the restrictionist immigration groups who are gaining new influence in Washington.

“Tillis has made himself the ninth member of the Gang of Eight,” said Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies, referring to senators who negotiated a comprehensive immigration bill in 2013. “He is trying to make himself a player, but it’s really just putting a Republican gloss on a Democratic policy.”

Roy Beck, president of Numbers USA, added: “His attitude seems to be, immigration does not have any effect on workers.”

“I think he’s playing with fire with his kind of cavalier attitude,” Beck said.

The senator says he’s used to those kinds of criticism.

It was during his tenure as speaker of the North Carolina House of Representatives that Tillis said he realized “we had to get right on immigration reform,” particularly as he met with employers around the state who told him they were struggling to hire even as the unemployment rate held steady.

“This myth that, you know, American workers were flocking to certain jobs are just that: a myth,” contends Tillis.

In North Carolina, Tillis also helped implement a mandatory E-Verify system — a workplace program that checks whether an employee can legally work in the United States. He now notes that mandatory E-Verify, a top policy priority of conservatives, has left some businesses in the state unable to fill vacant jobs.

He also tried to shepherd through a bill that would give driver’s licenses to undocumented immigrants if they went through background checks, were fingerprinted, paid a hefty annual fee and showed proof of prepaid car insurance. That legislation prompted his opponents to deride Tillis as an “amnesty speaker.”

“You just got to talk to these people like adults and expect that 10 or 15 percent of them are unreasonable,” Tillis said. “I’m not going to waste any time trying to win them over.”

The earlier driver’s license battle mirrors how Tillis is now approaching the congressional fight over Dreamers: Give some relief to immigrants, but with rigorous strings attached.

The so-called Succeed Act from Tillis, Lankford and Hatch wouldn’t allow young immigrants who obtain green cards through their bill to sponsor family members until they become citizens. (Current law allows green card holders to petition for a spouse or children.) It would cover a smaller group of Dreamers than a competing proposal from Durbin and Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.).

It would also require future temporary visa holders to waive their right to an immigration hearing if they violate the terms of their visa, and Tillis himself has said his bill must be paired with border-security measures.

Key Republicans, including Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley of Iowa, are already mulling how to marry different immigration bills and move them through the Senate.

Complicating that attempt may be the release of new principles for any Dreamers deal from the White House, which included construction of a border wall, elimination of key federal grants for sanctuary cities and a fundamental overhaul of the legal immigration system — all of which Democrats and even some Republicans oppose.

Durbin, the point person for Senate Democrats on the Dreamer issue, has also made clear he is not on board with key parts of Tillis’ bill. But some Democrats privately believe provisions they see as problematic could be tweaked to become workable.

Still, Durbin recalled in a recent interview that he was “pleasantly surprised” when Tillis approached him last year and told the Democrat he wanted to work on immigration with him. The two men, along with Lankford, met privately again last week to discuss the GOP Dreamer legislation.

“He’s a pretty courageous guy,” remarked Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn of Texas, who also leads the Senate subcommittee on immigration. “I think his record as speaker of the [North Carolina] House demonstrates his willingness to take on tough issues and fight those battles.”

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