Georgia’s Isakson, Perdue take own approaches to immigration debate

Ask them about their views on immigration and Georgia Republican U.S. Sens. David Perdue and Johnny Isakson hit many of the same notes.

Border security should be substantially beefed up, both say, and policies allowing migrants to sponsor family members to come live in the U.S. tightened. A decades-old lottery program granting U.S. visas to people from countries with historically low immigration levels has been problematic and needs to be revisited, they say.

But the two Republicans have taken to different corners in the Senate as lawmakers kick off a freewheeling and unpredictable floor debate on immigration this week. Their approaches showcase the divide within Congress over the politically fraught subject of the so-called Dreamers — immigrants brought to the U.S. as children without legal permission — as a key March 5 deadline approaches.

A veteran of multiple immigration debates over the past decade-plus, Isakson has spent weeks tucked inside the office of Maine Republican U.S. Sen. Susan Collins, who is trying to find a bipartisan solution along with nearly two-dozen other moderates.

A conservative with a deal-making reputation, Isakson said he is “willing to consider whatever we need to do to get this problem off the table.”

Perdue, meanwhile, has burnished his ties with the right as he's logged hours at the White House. He and Republican U.S. Sen. Tom Cotton of Arkansas have come to be seen as a barometer for Donald Trump on immigration even as the president has sent conflicting signals about what he wants from Congress on the issue.

Both Georgia lawmakers and their allies are expected to unveil competing proposals this week in response to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s unusual pledge to put any immigration bill up for a vote.

Still unclear is whether Isakson, Perdue or any of their colleagues hold a solution that can win the bipartisan support — and the backing of Trump — necessary to break the logjam on immigration.

Connecting the dots

Isakson and Perdue have approached the challenge from very different angles.

Perdue sees his role mainly as pulling the president — and any final immigration bill — to the right.

He has become a national voice on immigration within the past 12 months, reflecting the views of Trump’s core supporters and many conservative grass-roots activists in Georgia.

A former businessman, Perdue focused on economic issues during his 2014 campaign for the Senate and his first two years in the chamber and spoke about immigration mainly in broad strokes.

His interest in the subject grew after he was assigned to the Senate Judiciary Committee in 2015, which put him at the center of debates over issues such as sanctuary cities, border security and crimes committed by immigrants without legal status. It also put him behind the same dais as immigration hawks Jeff Sessions and Ted Cruz.

Perdue said the committee’s work prompted him to do his own research on federal immigration numbers, and he partnered with Cotton in 2016 to craft a bill focused on legal immigration. The pair took inspiration from the systems in place in Canada and Australia, as well as a set of recommendations then-Democratic U.S. Rep. Barbara Jordan made to President Bill Clinton in the 1990s that were largely ignored at the time.

“I knew there was a problem” with legal immigration, Perdue said in an interview last week. “Other countries had already addressed it and it had been working for decades. That was a fairly easy set of dots to connect.”

Within weeks of Trump's inauguration, the two rolled out a bill that would halve immigration levels by ratcheting down refugee visas, eliminating the visa lottery and moving the country away from a family-based immigration system to one more focused on merit.

Democrats rejected the proposal outright, and many Republicans, including Isakson, shied away, worried about the impact on businesses. But the plan caught the attention of Trump, who formally endorsed the effort last summer.

Jessica Vaughan, the director of policy studies for the Center for Immigration Studies, said her organization was thrilled with the bill. The group, which advocates for lower immigration levels, had long championed many of the proposals included in the measure.

“Obviously, we’re delighted that these are ideas are so prominent now because they’re good ideas,” she said.

Perdue and Cotton’s effort might have fizzled had it not been for Trump’s move last fall to end the Obama-era program that granted work permits to roughly 700,000 Dreamers. When Trump made his first overture to Democrats on replacement legislation, his proposal included several core tenets of Perdue’s bill.

Boos and phone calls

In many ways, Perdue’s effort is a rebuke of the Senate’s comprehensive immigration plan from 2013, which advanced through the chamber on a 68-32 vote but died a swift death in the more conservative House.

At the time, the leaders of those talks, including President Barack Obama, had made overtures to Isakson and then-Georgia U.S. Sen. Saxby Chambliss.

Isakson and Chambliss had been central figures in negotiations six years earlier over a similar bipartisan push from congressional Democrats and President George W. Bush. A key component of that 2007 plan was an Isakson-authored provision that required the U.S.-Mexico border be secured before other immigration changes were enacted, such as creating a large guest worker program and granting a pathway to citizenship for 12 million unauthorized immigrants.

The Republican duo, however, faced fierce opposition from conservatives back home.

Chambliss was booed at that year’s state GOP convention, and Isakson’s office was flooded with 27,000 phone calls and countless pieces of mail, including bricks intended for use in a wall at the Mexican border. The pair eventually abandoned the plan after determining the final bill “was not good enough for the people of Georgia,” an Isakson spokeswoman said.

The pair similarly rejected the Senate’s 2013 immigration bill, which Isakson said “contained several waivers and loopholes that could allow those who are here illegally to obtain green cards before our nation’s borders are truly secure.”

This year, it was frustration with Washington inaction that helped bring Isakson into Collins’ office last month as Congress careened toward a shutdown. About two dozen others also got involved. The group, which calls itself the Common Sense Coalition, helped broker the deal to end this year’s first shutdown and is also expected to release its own immigration proposal during this week’s floor debate.

“This is a movie I’ve been to before,” Isakson said earlier this month on Georgia Public Broadcasting’s “Political Rewind.” “It always ends the same way, and that’s without a resolution. We cannot afford to do that.”

Meanwhile, Perdue, Cotton and a handful of other Republican senators on Monday offered a proposal based on Trump’s latest immigration offer, which would create a pathway to citizenship for 1.8 million Dreamers and appropriate $25 billion for border security, including a wall on the Mexican border. The proposal notably does not pare down legal immigration levels to the extent of previous plans.

“President Trump has been very clear on what he will sign into law, and this is it,” Perdue said. “If people really want to solve the (Dreamer) situation, secure our border and fix the flaws in our current system that incentivize illegal immigration, they should be eager to support this plan.”

High-ranking issue

Chambliss, Perdue’s predecessor, said he admired both Georgia senators for getting into the fray on immigration, which he called the most “sensitive” issue of his Washington tenure.

“Whatever the result is, there will be plenty of criticism to come,” Chambliss said.

Indeed, immigration has become a litmus test in the Georgia Republican Party, and some political observers point to the moment when Chambliss was booed at the state GOP convention in 2007 as a watershed moment.

Debbie Dooley, a Georgia tea party activist, said conservatives felt burned by the bipartisan immigration deal President Ronald Reagan signed in 1986. Americans were told the changes put in place then would halt further illegal immigration, which did not come to pass, she said. That, according to Dooley, is why offering a chance at citizenship to immigrants who lack legal status is such a sensitive issue with Republican primary voters.

This time around, she said, “Republican primary voters want the laws enforced, they want the border secure before we talk about amnesty.”

Immigration remains as sensitive a subject today as it was in 2007.

Mark Rountree, a local pollster for the Republican-leaning Landmark Communications, said voters of many political stripes, from metro Atlanta to some of the state’s most rural corners, have consistently ranked immigration as one of their top areas of concern in his surveys.

“This is not a Johnny-come-lately, flash-in-the-pan-type issue,” he said. But even though locals — and particularly Republican primary voters — agree on immigration’s significance as an issue, there’s has been little consensus about potential solutions, he said.

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