An effort to mandate that every employer use a system to check that their employees are working in the country legally was rejected by House leaders Tuesday — a strong signal that those pushing immigration reform do not believe it has enough support to be passed as part of a comprehensive immigration bill.
The failure of the e-verify plan — which was eagerly sought by conservatives wary of the bill — means the House will instead vote on a plan that still includes a path to citizenship for 1.8 million Dreamers, people brought to the country illegally as children.
That plan, due for a vote as soon as Wednesday, would impose cuts in legal immigration and provide $25 billion for border security, including President Donald Trump's border wall.
Farm groups strongly opposed the defeated employee verification system. Those groups represent huge swaths of the Central Valley districts of House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-California, and Rep. Jeff Denham, R-California, who have been leading immigration efforts in the House.
The now-defeated plan on e-verify, which was combined with a visa for agricultural workers, had mixed support among agricultural groups. All opposed e-verify, but the language of the agriculture worker visa appeased some groups. Others did not support it because it still include a so-called "touchback" provision, which would make currently undocumented workers leave the U.S. to apply.
Agriculture groups are highly influential in the districts of Denham and McCarthy. McCarthy is seen as safe in his district, but Denham, whose district was won by Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton in 2016 and has a huge Hispanic population, is at risk.
Denham has pushed for a vote on immigration for months, even threatening leadership by joining with Democrats to get more moderate immigration legislation to a vote on the House floor. Denham was part of the group that ultimately decided to not allow the e-verify provision to proceed to a floor vote.
Republican leadership, including McCarthy, agreed to broker a deal between Republicans pushing immigration reform, such as Denham, and more conservative members in the House Freedom Caucus, which has about three dozen members. They were looking to subvert the effort that included Democrats.
After weeks of wrangling, it's still unclear if the full immigration bill has the votes to pass. The vote was delayed twice last week as it became obvious it would not appeal to enough Republicans to pass. The GOP controls 235 of the House's 435 seats.
The vast majority of Democrats, if not the entire 193-member caucus, are expected to vote against it.
Denham originally said e-verify would not be included in the bill, because he said he wanted to keep it as narrowly focused as possible. But then he reversed by allowing it to be considered after further negotiations with leadership and the Freedom Caucus, signaling he was open to such a provision if it meant the bill could achieve enough votes to pass.
The defeated plan would have required within the next two years that all businesses verify their employees could work legally in the U.S. In return, it offered the agricultural worker visa — many farm workers in the U.S. are known to be undocumented — but would only allow those farm workers already working in the U.S. to apply for the visa after briefly leaving the country.
The agricultural industry lobbied hard against the inclusion of e-verify, saying it is already struggling with a worker shortage and the proposal would exacerbate the problem. Farm groups have only signaled widespread support for an agricultural worker visa that allowed current undocumented workers to apply without having to return to their home countries.
Republicans in Congress are unlikely to support a provision under those terms, which many equate to amnesty.
Correction: A former version of this story said undocumented immigrants currently working in the country illegally would not have been eligible for the agricultural worker visa in the defeated provision. They would have been eligible after leaving the U.S. briefly, commonly referred to as a "touchback."