Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., warned a conservative audience in Washington, D.C. Monday night against settling for an immigration deal that would legalize beneficiaries of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program but not make them eligible for citizenship.
In an address to Hillsdale College's eighth annual Constitution Day Celebration, Cotton made clear he opposed clean reauthorization of DACA without additional provisions designed to mitigate the incentives for future illegal immigration that would be created by giving legal status to illegal immigrants who arrived as minors. But the senator said not allowing some path to citizenship for those legalized was a nonstarter.
Cotton said it would be bad policy to have a large group of permanent legal residents who weren't eligible for citizenship. He added, in response to an audience question, that it would also be terrible politics for Republicans if such a deal was enacted.
"The next day Democrats … would be protesting the ‘separate but equal'" treatment and "the new Jim Crow," Cotton said.
Some Republicans contend that legalization without citizenship would prevent the deportation of sympathetic, otherwise law-abiding undocumented immigrants without creating new Democratic voters.
What Cotton said Republicans should do instead was "pair any attempt to codify DACA" with restrictions on chain migration that allow the newly legalized beneficiaries to sponsor adult extended family members.
"Codify DACA along with the reforms of the RAISE Act," Cotton said, referring a bill he has introduced alongside Sen. David Perdue, R-Ga., that attempts to shift admission preferences away from generous family reunification toward more skills-based immigrants, while reducing immigration overall.
President Trump endorsed this bill at the White House in August, but has since perplexed many immigration hawks by appearing to embrace DACA and dealing with Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., on the issue.
"Only one in fifteen come for employment reasons," Cotton said in his speech Monday night. A number of legal and illegal immigrants approaching the population of the United Kingdom "did not come because of a job offer or because of their skills."
This isn't the first time Cotton has suggested the RAISE Act could be part of a DACA deal. But his speech to the Hillsdale-organized event was a broader challenge to the immigration liberalization of 1965 and the "bipartisan consensus" that sustains it.
Cotton described that consensus as resting on mythology, where immigration restrictions adopted in the 1920s were an "aberration" from a generally permissive policy described in the poetry of Emma Lazarus at the base of the Statute of Liberty, ultimately corrected by the 1965 Immigration Act.
"And everyone lived happily ever after," Cotton said, adding he would give this viewpoint "an F for history and an A for creative writing."
Cotton instead painted a picture of U.S. immigration as being broken up into periods of ebbs and flows, arguing that the former would benefit the American working class right now.
A similar argument broke out between the White House press corps and senior domestic policy adviser Stephen Miller after Trump spoke out in favor of the RAISE Act. Cotton has since been downplaying the idea that a potential deal with Schumer and Pelosi, who are supportive of the Dream Act, more closely reflects the president's thinking on immigration.
"I think the president has said publicly there's not a [DACA] deal, but he wants to see a deal," Cotton told NBC's "Meet the Press" on Sunday. "In fact, he called me a couple of nights ago so say 'there is no deal.' He wants to make sure we protect the interest of American workers."