May 1, 2023, 7:18am EDT

The Republican border bill is in limbo over a crackdown on illegal workers

A soybean farm in Indiana
REUTERS/Bryan Woolston

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The News

Before Republicans bring their border bill to the floor next week, they’ll need to agree on one last component: E-Verify.

As it stands, the combined border bill, to be named H.R. 2, would require businesses to check new hires with E-Verify, an online system currently used to confirm U.S. and foreign born employees’ work eligibility.

Industries that rely on seasonal workers fear mandatory E-Verify without a commensurate work authority program would destabilize the workforce, especially at a time of rock bottom unemployment rates that makes finding new labor harder. The farm, hospitality, and service sectors are all heavily reliant on immigrant workers.

“The ag industry would be crippled within a few weeks,” a Republican aide told Semafor should legislation pass with the current E-Verify structure.

Some members who represent rural farm districts want the mandate removed from the border bill or a carveout that would grandfather in the existing workforce. There’s concern throughout the conference that, unless addressed, Speaker Kevin McCarthy could lose the necessary votes to pass the bill on the floor.


Members are expected to debate the E-Verify piece this week. But there’s also still some consternation over language requesting the White House study whether to designate Mexican drug cartels a foreign terrorist organization, a popular idea among Republican presidential candidates.

Rep. Den Crenshaw, R- Texas told The Washington Examiner he favors “bigger penalties for cartels,” but is opposed to exploring the “terrorist” label because it could bolster legal claims for asylum seekers and give the Biden administration a stronger rationale to accept them. “You create an asylum claim for millions of people that are even close to these organizations,” he said.

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Kadia's view

The bill is likely to die in the Senate, even if it passes. Once a bill does get through, though, there are senators in both parties who are cautiously hopeful it might kickstart bipartisan talks. Sen. Thom Tillis, R-N.C. has suggested the House legislation could revive discussions around his legislative framework with Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, I-Ariz, the most high-profile effort to find common ground so far. A previous version of their proposal would have surged resources to the border, codified faster removal procedures, and provided new protections for DREAMers already here.

Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas said any major border or immigration reform legislation would have to start in the House before ping ponging between chambers. “I think that's the only path forward," he told reporters last week. “But I think what they also understand is whatever they pass will probably change, because it takes 60 votes to get cloture here.”

So while these debates may seem like small stakes at first blush, what does and doesn't make it into the GOP's party-line messaging bill could be consequential, since it would set the baseline for negotiations down the line.


In the meantime, there’s enormous pressure for Republicans to send a unified message as the Congress and the White House brace for a potential increase in border crossings when Title 42, the pandemic measure that sped up removals, ends on May 11. The administration has a plan in place to pair tougher enforcement measures with new ways to apply for asylum from Latin America, but with resources limited and Congress gridlocked, senior officials are warning that the challenges will be significant.

“We are seeing a level of migration not just at our southern border, but throughout the hemisphere, that is unprecedented,” Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas said on NBC’s Meet the Press on Sunday.

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Room for Disagreement

Sen. Bob Menendez, D-N.J. is typically at the center of legislative talks on immigration, but The New York Times reports he has grown pessimistic that any significant deal is likely this Congress. Instead, he’s urging the Biden administration to explore new executive actions aimed at accomplishing similar goals of speeding up deportations, cracking down on criminal activity around the border, and providing easier pathways to legal status as an alternative to risky crossings.

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  • The Agenda, Semafor’s deep-dive video series, talked to lawmakers in both parties about their hopes for a modest immigration reform deal after decades of costly failures. “Don't throw out the good in search of the perfect,” Sinema told Semafor.