Editor’s note: This story has been updated to include additional comments from Sen. Thom Tillis’ office.
Sen. Thom Tillis, a North Carolina Republican who has sought to make immigration one of his signature issues, is no longer involved in key bipartisan Senate negotiations over how to protect hundreds of thousands of immigrants who will soon lose their renewable work permits, according to four sources from both sides of the aisle.
Tillis’ office says the senator continues to be involved on immigration policy and that his staff has tried to engage with other Senate offices but with limited success.
“Tillis never left the working group, and we have recently attempted to engage with Senate Democrats to continue discussions,” his spokesman Daniel Keylin said. “Unfortunately we have not heard back.”
Tillis has not been at meetings of the working group for several weeks, according to four people familiar with the negotiations, many of whom blame his staff for discussing private talks, being unresponsive or misrepresenting the senator’s own immigration bill.
The senators, who have met dozens of times over the last two months, including every day leading up to the holiday recess, are widely expected to craft the immigration compromise that will protect Dreamers while increasing border security.
The group, which includes Republicans Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, Jeff Flake of Arizona and Cory Gardner of Colorado and Democrats Dick Durbin of Illinois and Michael Bennet of Colorado met for an hour Wednesday night at the Capitol. Tillis did not attend, according to people familiar with the meeting. Two other original Republican members, John Cornyn of Texas and James Lankford of Oklahoma, also did not attend, they say.
One of the people familiar with the situation blamed a Tillis staffer for discussing what the senators were negotiating after they had all agreed not to speak to anyone else about it. Another said senators have been irked with a different Tillis staffer for weeks for portraying the senator’s bill as more conservative than it is. A third person blamed Tillis’ staff for being unresponsive, saying Republican members of the group made a decision to move ahead with or without Tillis.
The senators “would very much like to see Tillis as part of the negotiation, but question his fortitude to take on what he may perceive as a tough issue,” the third person said.
Keylin did not respond to questions about Tillis staff. But he said Tillis did not attend a Dec. 20 meeting because he was waiting for administration feedback and did not attend a Wednesday meeting because he was not invited.
His office provided a pair of emails from December and January in which Tillis staffers tried to schedule a conference call and later a meeting with members of the working group.
“Given Sen Lankford’s now conflict, my boss does not see the utility in meeting today, especially without the deliverables DHS promised after yesterday’s presentation,” the staffer said Dec. 20 after the Department of Homeland Security failed to provide requested information. “I can check with his scheduler regarding his availability as early as next week if your bosses were interested in getting on a conference call to continue the discussions.”
“Would it be possible for us to get together tomorrow or Thursday to regroup start moving forward?” a second Tillis staffer asked Jan. 2.
After publication, Keylin issued a statement, disputing the story: “Senator Tillis has been laser-focused on a DACA solution even before President Trump’s announcement in September. He introduced the SUCCEED Act to provide a merit-based path to naturalization for DACA-eligible youth. He’s been involved in discussions with his Republican and Democratic colleagues, senior White House staff, and the President. His main focus will remain on the ultimate prize: a bipartisan deal that pairs effective border security with a long-term solution for DACA youth.”
The senators began meeting in November after Tillis introduced the “SUCCEED Act,” dubbed a conservative Dream Act, designed to provide a path to permanent residency to people brought to the United States illegally as children. The bill did not address other immigration issues, but Tillis said at the time it should paired with border security legislation.
"What we’ve tried to focus on is getting the feedback from the administration on what the core requirements are for border security and interior enforcement,” he said Wednesday. “We had great discussions before the holiday on trying to bridge some of the gaps between the DREAM Act and the SUCCEED Act.”
Several conservative immigration groups, including Federation for American Immigration Reform and Numbers USA, had been asking North Carolinians through emails and social media to contact Tillis’ office to urge him not to participate in a group that doesn’t address their key immigration issues, including chain migration that allows immigrants to help get other immigrants into the United States, the State Department’s diversity visa lottery program that allows immigrants to be awarded green cards, and E-verify, an online system that allows businesses to check immigration status.
Roy Beck, executive director of NumbersUSA, which advocates for greater immigration enforcement, described the news about Tillis as “fantastic,” saying North Carolinians had made their voices heard.
Tillis is now working with a Republican-only group led by Senate Judiciary Chairman Chuck Grassley of Iowa, according to one of the people familiar with the negotiations. Grassley introduced a bill last month that offered protections for Dreamers while increasing border security, targeting sanctuary cities that refuse to comply with immigration laws, bolstering e-verify and cracking down on chain migration.
RJ Hauman, FAIR’s government relations director, said the bipartisan working group supports “mass amnesty proposals” while delivering “nothing of significance” on immigration for the American people.
“Such a proposal would be a hard sell for Sen. Tillis down in North Carolina,” he said. “It is heartening to see Sen. Tillis work with Sen. Grassley’s Republican working group instead, as they have shown a commitment to the reforms outlined in the Trump administration’s immigration principles.”
Durbin’s proposal to the Republican members of the working group in December stripped out many border security measures, including money for additional enforcement agents and physical barriers, a GOP aide said.
Tillis was among the senators invited to the White House Thursday to meet with President Donald Trump along with other Republicans of the Judiciary Committee, including Grassley, Lankford, Cornyn, Cotton and Graham. Trump will hold a similar meeting next week with Democrats and Republicans, according to the White House.
“Hopefully, everything is going to work out very well,” Trump told the senators. “We really want it to work out. I can tell you the Republicans want to see it work out very well. If we have support from the Democrats, I think DACA is going to be terrific....We really are at a point where I think we could do something spectacular for the people on the border, the people coming through.”
Tillis praised Trump’s leadership on immigration. “When we've got the opportunity to provide a solution, achieve your objectives, and do something good for the DACA population, then I think we should.” Tillis told Trump.
Keylin later described the White House meeting as productive. “While it’s normal for negotiations to hit speeds bumps along the way, it’s imperative that Democrats accept the White House’s invitation to join Republicans next week and continue to work together to deliver on a border security and DACA compromise,” he said.
The administration announced in September it will shut down the program — Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals or DACA — March 5, giving Congress time to pass a legislative fix. Trump and Attorney General Jeff Sessions called the program an unconstitutional use of executive authority as they were been threatened with lawsuits from Texas and other states.
This week, three former Homeland Security secretaries warned lawmakers that a bill needed to pass this month in order to put a program in place to protect the immigrants brought into the country as children. Some lawmakers of both parties are pushing for a legislative fix to be part of deal for Democratic support of a spending package that must be passed by Jan. 19 to keep most of the government operating.
Spokesmen at the offices of Cornyn, Graham, Bennet and Durbin, the Senate Minority Whip and a leader for Senate Democrats on Dreamers, declined to comment. Others did not return phone calls.
Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly identified the state Graham represents. It is South Carolina.
Emma Dumain, Brian Murphy and Andrea Drusch contributed to this report.