The gathering was organized by the 147-member Republican Study Committee, a group of traditionalist conservative lawmakers that also has met recently with other Trump administration officials, including former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Fox News host Tucker Carlson. The group met with former Vice President Mike Pence on Tuesday.
Immigration policy is quickly emerging as a prime motivator for conservatives in the Biden era. The promise of more lenient and humane policies has led to confusion and fears of a massive influx of migrants at the border. The opening of a migrant facility for minors has sparked rebukes from the left and accusations of hypocrisy from the right. And Republicans, including Miller, have criticized the ambitious, 357-page immigration plan introduced on the president’s behalf last Thursday by Sen. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.) and Rep. Linda Sanchez (D-Calif.), in apocalyptic terms.
“It is the most radical immigration bill ever written, drafted, or submitted in the history of this country,” Miller said during an appearance on Fox News. “It is breathtaking.”
The Biden bill, which would provide a pathway to citizenship for 11 million undocumented immigrants, incorporates many provisions supported by Republicans in the past as well as by business groups today. But it leaves out border security investments that have typically attracted GOP support, suggesting to many in Congress that it was a messaging measure designed to fail.
The dream of a catch-all immigration solution has eluded presidents dating back to George H.W. Bush. Barack Obama tried and failed spectacularly when moderate Senate Republicans withdrew their support; even Trump sought repeatedly to jump start negotiations on Capitol Hill during his term in office — including a doomed effort led by senior adviser Jared Kushner — though he ultimately became reliant on executive orders and obscure regulatory changes to enact a restrictive immigration agenda.
The Biden White House has said its plan is a jumping-off point for future negotiations and a chance to press the “reset button” on an issue lawmakers have failed to make significant bipartisan progress on in decades.
“The reason we have not gotten immigration reform over the finish line is not because of a lack of will,” Menendez said at a news conference when the bill was introduced last week. “It is because time and time again, we have compromised too much and capitulated too quickly to fringe voices who have refused to accept the humanity and contributions of immigrants to our country and dismiss everything… as ‘amnesty.’”
Biden’s push to dismantle Trump’s immigration policies comes at a time when the Republican Party is searching for issues, beyond cultural flashpoints, to unify the base and animate GOP voters. Beyond Trump’s remarks, panels at CPAC this weekend in Orlando, Fla., include “The Looming Humanitarian Crisis at the Border” and “Sell Outs: The Devaluing of the American Citizenship.”
For Trump, hardline immigration rhetoric is a form of political comfort food — a theme he’s returned to time and again, from his famous campaign announcement speech at Trump Tower, when he labeled Mexican asylum-seekers “criminals” and “rapists,” to his calls for a complete ban on Muslim immigrants until “our country’s representatives can figure out what the hell is going on.” Some of his earliest actions as president took aim at restricting immigration to the United States. Others, like the ending of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, were ultimately undone by legal challenges.
Though he lost the presidency, Trump’s approach to immigration has remained the dominant strand within the broader GOP. Several conservative groups have cited the Covid-19 pandemic as a reason to keep immigration front and center, accusing the Biden administration of allowing Central American migrants to arrive in the country even as they push or contemplate foreign and domestic travel restrictions to stop the spread of the virus.
“One of the most outrageous things was when the Biden administration floated a Florida travel ban and new domestic testing requirements, while at the same time allowing in migrants from Central America without testing,” said R.J. Hauman, government relations director at the restrictionist group Federation for American Immigration Reform. “Talk about a terrible idea and an even tougher sell.”
And yet, polling shows the majority of the country supportive of immigration reform. Overall, 65 percent of Americans support a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants currently living in the United States, according to a February poll by Quinnipiac. And even more — 83 percent — support allowing undocumented immigrants who were brought to the U.S. as children to remain in the country and apply for citizenship.
“There is absolutely no public opinion in the world that says Stephen Miller and Donald Trump’s immigration plans are a net positive for the Republican Party,” said Todd Schulte, the president of FWD.us, an immigration advocacy group. “The human consequences of those policies have been terrible and the political consequences for the republican party have been flat out terrible.”