"We should have addressed the issue a long time ago, but the other side of it is, events trigger action," Sen. John McCain said. "Events drive legislation."
Republicans and Democrats alike recognize that the country must find some way to deport illegal immigrants who have felony records in the country, even if they are residing in a sanctuary city. Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein has pledged to make a legislative push, and Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton has come out in support of limiting the power of officials in sanctuary cities.
Sen. Ted Cruz, a Republican vying for the White House, last week introduced "Kate's law," which would lead to a mandatory five-year sentence on anyone who is deported and illegally reenters the U.S. The idea has been promoted by television personality Bill O'Reilly. Republican Sens. Tom Cotton and David Vitter tried to attach amendments to a Senate education bill last week that would have halted federal immigration funding to areas that don't comply with immigration enforcement.
Yet some Republicans, even those who support a change, are fearful that ignoring comprehensive immigration reform while devoting committee and floor time to a sanctuary-cities law could send the wrong message to Latino voters.
"If it morphs into more Trump-like accusations about people who are here, then it is a problem, but I have supported policies to deal with sanctuary cities," said Republican Sen. Jeff Flake of Arizona. "I do worry that if we are looking at just one angle that it is easy to demagogue."
The Republican Party has already been fending off attacks that it is anti-immigrant. Republican presidential contender Donald Trump, who has been leading in recent polls, has only fanned the criticism with comments that Mexican immigrants coming to the U.S. are frequently criminals.
"When Mexico sends its people, they are not sending their best," Trump said during his campaign launch in June. "They're sending people that have lots of problems, and they're bringing those problems with us. They're bringing drugs. They're bringing crime. They're rapists. And some, I assume, are good people."
Immigration policy is notoriously confounding for the GOP. In one instance, the party recognizes its need to appeal to Hispanic voters in order to win a general election. But to win a primary, Republican candidates have an opposing need to appeal to some conservative voters who feel strongly that illegal immigrants should be deported. It's the same dilemma that led presidential hopeful and Sen. Marco Rubio to renounce his own comprehensive immigration bill. And it's the same reason that former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush has at times struggled to articulate his position on whether immigrants living in the country illegally should have a shot at citizenship.