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Once a cornerstone of Trump campaign, E-Verify makes a DACA deal far more complicated

Republicans may give hundreds of thousands of immigrants a path to citizenship in upcoming weeks, begging a decades-old question: What are they going to demand in return?

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Lauren Fox
Tal Kopan (CNN)
WASHINGTON (CNN) — Republicans may give hundreds of thousands of immigrants a path to citizenship in upcoming weeks, begging a decades-old question: What are they going to demand in return?

A path to citizenship even for a limited population like recipients of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program is forcing Republicans to reckon with whether now is also the time to push for E-Verify triggers, which could make a narrow bill more comprehensive and therefore more complicated.

For several months, a group of bipartisan senators led by Democrat Dick Durbin of Illinois and Republican Lindsey Graham of South Carolina have quietly worked on a way to preserve DACA in exchange for bolstered border security -- but not E-Verify, a national database that is used by employers to verify the immigration status of individuals they hire.

"Those of us who negotiated the 'Gang of Eight' bill, that was a tough part of the negotiations. Believe me," Arizona Republican Jeff Flake said, referring to a 2013 immigration measure. "So it's difficult, it's got to wait."

Internal enforcement has long been a contentious political issue, not just because of schisms between Republicans and Democrats but also because of differences within the GOP, business sectors and unions -- and E-Verify may be one of the most controversial. On programs like E-Verify, the traditional politics are scrambled: Unions often find themselves on the same side as conservatives, and agricultural and restaurant groups on the same side as Democrats.

Even within the GOP, vast differences about how to tackle internal enforcement exist. Interest groups in the agricultural sector -- a key constituency for Republicans who hail from rural states -- argue that they have a shortage of workers. They are opposed to expanding E-Verify without an overhaul to the country's guest worker program, and members of Congress say they're very familiar with those concerns.

"The bottom line is I do have to represent the farmers and agriculture in my district, and E-Verify sounds good and all, but there's got to be some security for these growers and these ranchers that they're going to be able to have the labor to keep their businesses going," Rep. Tom Rooney, a Republican from Florida, told CNN.

Even a conservative recent proposal from an all-Republican immigration reform group led by Sens. Chuck Grassley of Iowa and John Cornyn of Texas only bolstered the existing use of the database, rather than making it mandatory.

A group of House conservatives have grabbed that third rail, nevertheless, on Wednesday introducing a bill that would make E-Verify mandatory across the board, in exchange for a guest visa program for agriculture workers. That proposal from the House Judiciary Committee almost didn't pass the committee last year, getting no votes from staunch immigration hard-liners like Reps. Steve King and Louie Gohmert, who seemingly agreed with Democratic arguments that the agriculture bill would actually accomplish the opposite of what Republicans argue for and allow employers to hire foreign labor below average American wage levels. And the bills had to move as a package deal to get support from the business community for the E-Verify piece.

"The estimates vary but basically 50 to 70% of migrant workers are here in an undocumented fashion," said Will Rodger, the director of policy communications at the American Farm Bureau Federation. "What (E-Verify) would mean is that people who are here illegally would not be able to work."

But tackling an overhaul of a guest worker program alongside DACA and in addition to chain migration, a reworking of the lottery system and more border security -- all things the White House has asked for -- would force lawmakers into working on a more comprehensive immigration package than many believe there is time for right now.

"It's not a perfect system. There's obviously some resistance and if you have too much resistance, you don't have enough votes for it, you can't enact it," said Sen. Ron Johnson, a Republican from Wisconsin, who added, "Right now we don't have enough workers."

Democrats are quick to point out that although provisions like E-Verify garnered Democratic votes in 2013, the scope of the deal was much larger. Trying to jam those elements in now, they say, greatly distorts the trade they're getting for DACA -- which would affect only roughly 1 million undocumented immigrants of the estimated 11 million in the country.

"I don't know how you count to a majority with E-Verify in the Senate or in the House," said Rep. Pete Aguilar, a Democrat and whip for the Congressional Hispanic Caucus. "I think that is incredibly problematic. So I think folks who want to add it to this process -- again, I think Republicans are trying to add in everything that they have or that they negotiated for comprehensive immigration reform for a DACA fix, which is much narrower than that. So maybe it's a negotiating strategy, I don't think it's based in reality, though."

In 2013, reimagining the agricultural worker program alone was an arduous part of the negotiations. Key negotiators enlisted outside groups to cut deals among themselves, and even that took months. Republicans who feel a sense of urgency to protect DACA recipients now say that finding that kind of consensus in a matter of days or weeks simply isn't possible.

But there are still many Republicans in the House and Senate who believe that not addressing internal enforcement now, when Trump is President and there is an immigration bill before them, is anathema to their decades-long campaign promises.

"E-Verify is the most effective deterrent to illegal immigration because it shuts off the jobs magnet and saves jobs for hardworking Americans," Rep. Lamar Smith, a Republican from Texas, said on the House floor Wednesday.

And the fact is that on the presidential campaign trail, E-Verify became a common refrain for Trump -- and almost every other Republican in the field.

"We will ensure that E-Verify is used to the fullest extent possible under existing law, and we will work with Congress to strengthen and expand its use across the country," Trump declared in an August 2016 stump speech.

But more moderate Republicans and Democrats also warn that tackling internal enforcement alongside DACA is cruel to young immigrants who may finally find themselves protected by Congress while members of their family who are in the country illegally suddenly become more at risk of deportation. Republican Colorado Rep. Mike Coffman, who comes from a district with a heavy immigrant population, said the key in this deal is to pass DACA, some border security measures and maybe a few other things -- but leave interior enforcement for the bigger deal down the road.

"The next piece is what to do with adults who knowingly broke the law but haven't violated other criminal laws," Coffman said. "What I would like to see is the bargaining chip for them is interior enforcement, E-Verify. I have a very conservative vision on what that ought to look like, but if you do it before you give them an opportunity to come out of the shadows, you just make those lives of those families just harder than they already are. ... You just push them underground further."

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