Fear of a Secret 'Amnesty' Bedevils Republicans on Trade

The “trojan horse” with no legs.

The U.S. Capitol Building stands in this photo taken with a tilt-shift lens in Washington, D.C., U.S., on Friday, Oct. 3, 2014.

Photographer: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg

The debate over trade promotion authority and the Trans-Pacific Partnership is largely taking place on the left-hand side of the political spectrum—more accurately, between the Democrats named "Barack Obama" and the Democrats named anything else. The Republican votes for the trade deal are supposed to be locked in. Indeed, the GOP's 2014 election victory was a key reason that the TPP and "fast track" authority moved to the head of the Capitol agenda. Republican votes would affirm them; a Democratic president would sign them.

Yet a small problem has emerged on the right. On April 13, the strategist Curtis Ellis published a column in The Hill arguing that the trade deal was a "trojan horse" for amnesty, because it included an "entire chapter on immigration" that made the acquisition of L-1 visas easier. It was easier still to imagine the president using this bill to grant legal status to millions of foreign workers. "The Trans-Pacific Partnership is another instance of Obama using every means he can to advance his immigration agenda, as he said he would," wrote Ellis.

This worry was not unique to Ellis; by April 16, the Ways and Means Committee felt it necessary to debunk the "backdoor amnesty" rumor. "Like past U.S. trade agreements," wrote the committee's analysts, "TPP will explicitly state that it will not require changes in any parties’ immigration laws or procedures. While other countries are negotiating temporary entry commitments in TPP, these will not include the United States."

Yet the rumor persists. On Tuesday, in The Hill (again), Dick Morris largely re-wrote the Ellis column to argue that the TPP would usher in "mass immigration." And in conversations Tuesday, several Republican members of Congress said they had heard dark rumors about the deal.

"I'm concerned that we are again empowering a president who abuses power," said Louisiana Congressman John Fleming. "We're hearing something about some kind of an exchange, or utilizing foreign workers, and at a time when we have so many Americans not working I think that's a problem."

Asked where he'd heard the rumor, Fleming could not say. "I just came across some stuff; I'm not even sure where I read it," he said. "I want to get to the bottom of it. What often happens with these bills is that we get the hype, we get the marketing, but we don't get the details until the last minute." Echoing the language of the skeptics, he worried that the deal might be a "trojan horse."

Virginia Congressman Dave Brat, an economist who defeated former GOP majority leader Eric Cantor in a 2014 primary, said that he was a "free trade by disposition" but had concerns with the new bill.

"No one wants to live on Robinson Crusoe's island," said Brat. "But are there  immigration provisions in there? I don't know. Some say yes; some say no. You can look at it, if you have time, amidst a million other issues."

Idaho Congressman Raul Labrador, a former immigration lawyer, said that he'd heard the same rumors and worried that he lacked the time to comb the bill's text. "I was just talking to my staff about that," he said. "I keep hearing about it, but I haven't found that in the bill yet."

Republican leaders, while annoyed, don't see an issue that could tank the bill. It's more a manifestation of the worries that the rank and file have about all bills that look rushed, and are not open to amendments. Progressives, who are far more united in killing the trade deal, are in the uncommon position of rooting for paranoia. And there is plenty to be had. Fleming, for example, speculated that the president might use trade authority to cut a deal with Iran.

"He could open up trade with countries that are sworn enemies of ours," said the congressman. "Before you know it, Iran could be one of our closest trading partners, and we'd be giving access to people who are sworn enemies of our destruction."