Moderates await, prep for window on immigration reform

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Hope is not lost for an immigration reform compromise under President Donald Trump -- at least for a group of moderates in Congress who are looking to be ready in case a thaw emerges.

While no specific policy is yet under development, a loose coalition of like-minded Republicans on the Hill is having discussions, and feeling each other out on what types of deals they might be willing to lead, according to conversations with more than half a dozen sources close to the process.

The group is a mix of veterans of attempts to reform America's immigration laws in the previous administration and a handful of new faces who may choose to make immigration one of their signature issues.

The idea is simple: Be ready for a moment when both sides are willing to come to the table, likely after Trump feels he can already claim some victories on border security.

Trump swept into office on a hardline message on immigration. His campaign was largely based on strictly enforcing immigration laws and cracking down on undocumented immigrants -- policies he has made efforts to put in place since his first week.

Some believe that aggressiveness up front could be the key to a breakthrough down the road. They point to the fact that most conservatives cited concern that border security wouldn't get done and that President Barack Obama wouldn't enforce laws Congress passed as their primary obstacles in the past -- obstacles that Trump seemingly removes.

"I've been saying for several months that the President is going to be the person who's going to bring us together to fix the immigration problem," Idaho Republican Rep. Raul Labrador, a former immigration lawyer, told reporters in the Capitol earlier this month. Labrador stopped participating in previous bipartisan reform talks over a disagreement and heavily criticized executive actions on immigration by President Barack Obama.

"He's going to be like the 'Nixon going to China' moment," Labrador added, "where the person who was the loudest and the strongest on the problems that we face on immigration is also the person who can bring people together to solve all the other issues that we have on immigration."

Trump has also issued an olive branch of sorts to would-be reformers, saying in his joint address to Congress "real and positive immigration reform is possible," provided the goal is to help American jobs and wages, protect national security and engender respect for US laws. Earlier that day, a senior administration official had said Trump may be open to legalization for current undocumented immigrants, but Trump did not say that before Congress.

Either way, Trump will be an essential component of any progress.

If Trump were to throw his weight behind a compromise deal, it would likely pick up momentum. At the same time, were he to strongly oppose a deal, it could be a death knell. As one Republican lawmaker said privately, most lawmakers are fearful of a vicious Trump tweet directed their way to "blow them up."

In the past, immigration reform attempts have included a combination of efforts to secure the border, update and improve the laws for legal immigration visas, and an effort to resolve what to do about an estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants already living in the US.

The early conversations are largely happening on the House side -- where lawmakers expect immigration reform will need to begin after the failure of a Senate-led reform effort in 2013 to advance in the lower chamber.

But immigration-reform minded lawmakers are also increasingly looking at Sen. Thom Tillis to be a possible leader in the space. The North Carolina Republican was elected in 2014, missing the last fight over immigration, but has become recently outspoken about using his management consulting experience to try to get immigration reform done in Washington.

"We know most of the solutions, we need to figure out how to stage them, how to put them together in a package, how to silence the voices at either end of the political spectrum that are the reasons we haven't been successful in the past and solve the problem," Tillis said at a Bipartisan Policy Center event earlier this month.

Tillis suggested putting together pairs of compromises that satisfy both sides to gain momentum. He said he'd start with border security -- a key issue to conservatives -- and pair that with legislation codifying protections for undocumented immigrants brought to the US as children, covered under the Obama administration DACA program. From there, he said, deals could be made on visa reform and E-Verify, as well as enforcement against employers who abuse illegal immigration.

"So that to me is a classic example of a starting place," Tillis said. "(Steps) need to be paired with good common sense law and order and compassionate, rational policies for the people who are here illegally present, and I think that if we do that, then we start building the momentum to solve the problem."

Some think an early opportunity may arise this month, when the White House presents its budget request to Congress. Trump is expected to ask for money for his long-promised border wall, as well as implementing his executive orders calling for increased border security and enforcement capacity. That could be a window for DACA, some hope. Other optimistic estimates range from a possible opportunity late this year into next year, the second of Trump's term.

Skepticism still remains

Convincing Democrats will be essential to any effort, and while Democratic lawmakers have long been eager to find a pathway to citizenship for and protect noncriminal undocumented immigrants already here, driving reform efforts int he past, Democrats also feel the need to stand up to Trump's policies and rhetoric.

On Monday, the top Senate Democrats led by Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer sent a letter to Republican leadership saying that including any border wall funding in a must-pass continuation of government funding that expires in April could result in a government shutdown.

Privately, many Democrats feel that they would ultimately be willing to compromise with Republicans out of fear of Trump's policies and for the opportunity to get something done for a population they've long sought to protect. But publicly, the party insists it stands ready to come to the table only when Trump abandons his aggressive efforts to deport and detain undocumented immigrants.

"This is not Nixon goes to China," volunteered Arizona Democratic Rep. Ruben Gallego after Trump's joint address. "One, he's not that bright, and two not that committed. He's going to fumble it in one manner or another, and at the end of the day, as soon as he feels pressure from the right, he'll fold."