Democrats and Republicans scrambling to protect Dreamers before a March deadline will almost certainly have to swallow tougher immigration measures in return.
GOP lawmakers on Capitol Hill, from the top tiers of leadership down to key rank and file, are quickly coalescing around pairing a measure that codifies the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program into law with some modest security and enforcement measures.
And Democrats are willing to deal.
This means that President Donald Trump’s desire to construct a 2,000-mile border wall and slash legal immigration limits are all but off the table. Ditto measures, at least for Democrats, that would put other undocumented immigrants, such as the parents of Dreamers, more at risk of deportation. But other, more modest measures are in play.
Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) would like to pass stand-alone legislation to provide a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants who came to the United States as children, but he said Republicans who are insisting on other immigration provisions are “right.”
“The Republican criticism is, if you just provide legal status and do no more, you incentivize people to keep coming,” Graham said in an interview Wednesday. “So I think the deal is a border security package that’s reasonable, effective and married up with the DREAM Act.”
In the House, Speaker Paul Ryan stressed Wednesday that “it is only reasonable and fitting” to address not just a DACA fix but the causes of illegal immigration by tightening up border security — signaling that he wouldn’t move a stand-alone bill for Dreamers.
Elsewhere at the Capitol on Wednesday, Democrats began outlining with more detail what they are not willing to accept in a broader agreement to address the DACA population. And Democratic leaders showed some willingness to play procedural hardball, when they vowed to try to attach Dreamers legislation to other must-pass items later this year.
“There are some things that are absolutely unacceptable. A 2,200-mile border wall is unacceptable. Making it easier to deport the parents of Dreamers, not gonna do that,” Senate Minority Whip Dick Durbin of Illinois, a longtime advocate for Dreamers, said in an interview.
But, Durbin added, “If they want to put something on the table, I’ll look at it.”
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell hasn’t outlined how he believes DACA should be handled by Congress, which faces a March 5 deadline set by the Trump administration to salvage the Obama-era executive action that gave temporary work permits to nearly 800,000 young undocumented immigrants.
But others on his leadership team, including Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn , say a measure providing a pathway to legal status for Dreamers won’t pass Congress solely by itself.
The Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley of Iowa plans to hold a hearing on Sept. 13 to address DACA and worker visa programs — which could help further clarify how a legislative solution for Dreamers could materialize in the GOP-controlled Congress.
Though largely resistant to comprehensive immigration-reform efforts during previous administrations, a broad array of Republican lawmakers are eager to throw a lifeline to Dreamers.
“I think most of us view it as a way to tackle multiple issues that need to be addressed on immigration,” said Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), one of the authors of a “border surge” plan that was included in the Senate’s comprehensive immigration reform bill in 2013. “I cannot imagine DACA moving by itself.”
Still, as Wednesday’s stunning debt limit deal between Trump and Democratic leaders shows, the dynamics on how to address any complicated policy battle can change on a whim, particularly under this president. And so Republicans are increasingly making it clear that the administration needs to lay out the contours of an immigration plan that Trump would sign.
Administration officials have already hinted that the White House wants to extract immigration concessions from Congress in exchange for codifying DACA, such as a border wall, restrictions on legal immigration or more enforcement agents on the ground. Depending on how those policies are structured, all could be nonstarters with Democrats and even some Republicans.
For instance, conservative GOP Sens. Tom Cotton of Arkansas and David Perdue of Georgia want to attach the RAISE Act, which would slash several family-based green cards and establish a merit-based points system for future immigrants, to DACA legislation. But that measure faces significant resistance from both parties on Capitol Hill and would struggle to pass, even with Trump’s imprimatur.
“Cut legal immigration in half?” said Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.). “I don’t think so.”
Other Republicans are privately and publicly pitching various immigration ideas that they think could be paired with a DACA fix. Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) has proposed adding to DACA legislation his legislation to create a three-year temporary worker visa program, arguing that it would help end the incentive for illegal immigration by providing more avenues to come here legally.
Meanwhile, Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio) has spoken to other lawmakers about a measure bolstering E-Verify, a system that allows employers to check whether their workers are in the United States legally.
“That would be, substantively, I think the most effective way to deal with the enforcement issues,” Portman said. “But I’m not suggesting I wouldn’t support dealing with DACA otherwise.”
Durbin, however, signaled that Democrats would not accept E-Verify provisions. That would help identify more undocumented workers for deportation without providing the law-abiding immigrants a pathway to citizenship, like the Gang of Eight comprehensive reform bill did in 2013, argued Durbin, who helped write that bill. That measure passed with bipartisan support in the Senate but was never considered in the House.
Other Senate Republicans, including Shelley Moore Capito of West Virginia, Tim Scott of South Carolina and Dan Sullivan of Alaska, said in interviews on Wednesday that they want to address a legislative fix for DACA in tandem with border security measures.
“Nothing on DACA probably, certainly, doesn’t get done in September, might not get done this year, but will get done in time for anybody impacted by it to be protected,” said Missouri Sen. Roy Blunt, the fifth-ranking Senate Republican. “I don’t think it’s likely to be part of a comprehensive bill, but I think it’s certainly possible that it be either passed simultaneously or with some other immigration issue.”
Still other Republicans are simply eager to protect the Dreamer population in any way Congress can.
“I’d support anything that might help resolve that problem,” said Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), who helped write the original DREAM Act giving legal status to young undocumented immigrants in 2001. “I don’t want to see these young people, who have tremendous potential, shut down or hurt.”
Elana Schor, Rachael Bade and Burgess Everett contributed to this report.
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