President Donald Trump’s expected decision to punt the fate of nearly 800,000 Dreamers to Congress promises to drive yet another rift through an already fractured Republican Party, which has for years struggled to coalesce around immigration reform proposals.
Already, GOP lawmakers on Capitol Hill are reacting in wildly diverging ways to Trump’s yet-to-be-announced plan to dismantle an Obama-era initiative for immigrants brought here illegally at a young age — but to give Congress six months to come up with a legislative solution first.
A growing number of Republicans have urged Trump not to end the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program — with some lashing out against the president in harsh terms — while other GOP lawmakers have indicated he is not ending the five-year-old initiative quickly enough.
Meanwhile, some Republicans such as conservative Sen. Tom Cotton of Arkansas are openly floating trade-offs to protect DACA recipients, even as Democrats insist that Dreamers aren’t bargaining chips for tougher immigration restrictions. In the House, senior Republicans still believe there’s a possible deal to be struck with Democrats: codifying DACA in return for Trump’s sought-after border wall.
That leaves Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) — who have both expressed sympathy for the plight of Dreamers in the past — in an awkward political position as they navigate a fall agenda that is already packed with a slate of must-pass bills, including government spending bills, a debt limit increase, and an aid package for Hurricane Harvey victims.
One plugged-in immigration advocate predicted a “30-70 chance” that Congress successfully passes legislation that would essentially codify DACA — which temporarily defers deportations and provides work permits to qualifying young undocumented immigrants – into law.
“I just don’t think we can make the mistake of assuming the opposition isn’t formidable, even if we have some conservative support,” the advocate said.
Still, support for Dreamers has been rising from unexpected quarters within the GOP, especially as DACA’s future becomes increasingly more precarious. Trump is expected to make an announcement Tuesday that he will end DACA but with a delayed implementation, although White House officials have cautioned that nothing is official until Trump makes it public.
“It is right for there to be consequences for those who intentionally entered this country illegally,” Sen. James Lankford (R-Okla.) said in a statement Monday. “However, we as Americans do not hold children legally accountable for the actions of their parents.”
Lankford is among the Republican senators who have been privately speaking with Sen. Thom Tillis (R-N.C.) about legislation that would allow undocumented immigrants who came to the United States as minors to obtain legal status if they work, pursue higher education or serve in the military. Tillis has called it a “fair but rigorous path.”
Several Senate Republicans have been talking quietly for months about multiple immigration bills, in addition to Tillis’ proposal, according to one Senate GOP source, although those discussions stalled during the health care debate in July.
“I have indicated in the past that I’m supportive of DACA and believe that the humanity aspect of this, what you described, is important — no fault of their own, circumstances beyond their control,” Sen. Jerry Moran (R-Kan.) told a constituent during a town hall in August. Saying he’ll take a look at related legislation, Moran added: “DACA has made sense to me.”
In the House, GOP Rep. Mike Coffman, a moderate from Colorado, recently hit the TV airwaves calling on Congress to pass his bill allowing law-abiding immigrants brought here before age 16 to stay — a bipartisan proposal whose companion legislation in the Senate is backed by the likes of Sens. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) and Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.).
But immigration hardliners are warning GOP leaders not to go there. For years, congressional Republicans have complained that former President Barack Obama overreached when he created DACA through executive action, and many conservatives view the 2012 program as antithetical to their tougher line on illegal immigration.
“Ending DACA now gives [us a] chance 2 restore Rule of Law. Delaying so Leadership can push Amnesty is Republican suicide,” tweeted ultra-conservative Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa) on Sunday night, after POLITICO first reported Trump’s expected decision.
Despite some Republicans softening toward Dreamers in the Senate, the House is expected to be a tougher hurdle. However, Ryan has long backed overhauling immigration laws, and warned Trump last week against ending DACA, which Ryan told a Wisconsin radio program affects “kids who know no other country” and “don’t know another home.”
McConnell has expressed similar sentiments toward Dreamers in the past, though a spokesman said Monday that the majority leader had no new comment on DACA’s future.
“I’m very sympathetic with this situation,” McConnell said during a news conference in February. “I mean, these are young people who were brought here at a tender age and who have grown up here, or are in the process of growing up here. I’m very sympathetic to that situation.”
But large swaths of Capitol Hill are loathe to weigh in on a decision that Trump has yet to announce and is still surrounded by many unknowns. One key question yet to be answered is what happens to the two-year DACA work permits that expire during the six-month period and whether they would be renewed.
Todd Schulte, president of FWD.us, the pro-immigration group backed by Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, stressed that barring renewals for current DACA recipients would be “devastating.”
“Whether this happens or not, however, both parties and both chambers can and must make a permanent legislative solution like the bipartisan Dream Act an immediate, must-pass bill,” Schulte said. “As a majority of House Republicans are on the record in favor of letting Dreamers earn legal status, we believe a vote should be called and a bill passed without delay.”
A number of senior House Republican sources told POLITICO there may be an immigration deal that would codify DACA in return for a down payment on Trump’s border wall with Mexico.
These sources say they’d prefer to iron out such an agreement with Democrats later in the fall as part of a broader spending package that would also lift strict spending caps.
There’s a possibility, however, that the fight doesn’t wait that long. GOP leaders will almost certainly rely heavily on Democrats to raise the debt ceiling this month, which the administration has said must be done by Sept. 29. And Democrats, some Republicans worry, could try to use their leverage to demand that legislation protecting DACA recipients be included.
Congressional Democrats are united in their push to defend Dreamers and have a solid chunk of Republicans in their corner. And others believe that Trump starting a ticking time-bomb against DACA could be the very thing that forces Congress to act.
“If President Trump chooses to cancel the DACA program and give Congress six months to find a legislative solution, I will be supportive of such a position,” Graham said Monday. “If President Trump makes this decision we will work to find a legislative solution to their dilemma.”
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