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Congressional Baggage Weighs Down DACA Fix

Christine Grimaldi

“We aren’t going into negotiations to trade amnesty for some for deportation for others.”

Rare bipartisan support is emerging on Capitol Hill to restore Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) along with a sense of permanency for 800,000 young “DACAmented” immigrants in limbo, following President Trump’s decision to end the program in six months.

The problem is getting there.

Sens. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) and Dick Durbin (D-IL) want the U.S. Congress to pass their DREAM Act, versions of which have been reintroduced since 2001. The identical bills (S 1615, HR 3440) pending in the U.S. House of Representatives and the U.S. Senate would provide young undocumented immigrants who meet specific requirements with a pathway to become legal permanent residents. Rewire’s Tina Vasquez recently chronicled their stories in their own words.

Durbin went as far as to call the DREAM Act “our main item in the agenda for the month of September,” and Graham agreed during a joint press conference on Tuesday. But it’s not on the radar of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY), the ultimate arbiter of what will and will not come to the Senate floor.

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Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn (R-TX) said “there’s no way” Congress will act on DACA in September, according to a Politico report. The clock is already ticking on the 17 legislative days on the Senate’s September calendar. The House is only in session for 12 days this month.

Cornyn doesn’t think the DREAM Act can advance without the help of a legislative vehicle. Such vehicles typically take the form of must-pass bills like Hurricane Harvey disaster relief or a continuing resolution (CR) to fund the government after September 30 in the absence of viable annual appropriations bills. Those types of bills can set the stage for potentially dramatic showdowns while funding for a community or the country hangs in the balance.

“There’s no way that it will stand alone,” Cornyn said.

Congressional leaders didn’t include the DREAM Act in a legislative package bundling together a short-term CR and a short-term debt-limit increase, along with $7.85 billion in Hurricane Harvey aid. Trump on Wednesday handed House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) an unexpected victory in blessing the three-month debt limit increase.

Some Democrats blasted the leaders for failing to include the DREAM Act in the package.

“The bond and trust between the Dreamers and the Democratic Caucus is broken,” the Congressional Hispanic Caucus’ Rep. Luis Gutiérrez (D-IL) told top Democrats during a private meeting, according to a Thursday Politico report.

“Other immigration advocates privately took no issue with the deal that Pelosi and Schumer cut,” the report continued. “They acknowledged that getting the DREAM Act passed this month was never going to happen. And Democrats on Capitol Hill say they want to spend the coming weeks and months to gradually build support—particularly among Republicans—for the DREAM Act, rather than trying to jam the GOP on immigration policy this month, particularly amid a debate over emergency hurricane aid.”

Schumer took to the Senate floor a day earlier, on Wednesday, on behalf of passing a clean DREAM Act in September. If not, “we, as the minority here, are prepared to attach it to legislative vehicles in the fall until it passes,” he pledged.

Congress will need to pass spending bills—either individually or collected into what’s known as an omnibus package—or another CR to fund the government beyond December.

“I don’t know whether Democratic leadership will make demands that you have to fix DACA, or don’t expect any Democratic votes for a CR,” a senior House Democratic aide said in a phone interview. “I do know that it’s something that Democrats are pretty uniformly passionate about.”

The aide called a DACA fix “too high-profile” of an issue to just throw into a CR or any other legislative vehicle that happens to be moving.

“Even if it is carried by something else, I would expect that it would have to be the result of some bipartisan discussions, negotiation, and agreement,” the aide said.

Having leaders bring up the DREAM Act, and only the DREAM Act, for a vote in each chamber is the ultimate goal, according to a second senior House Democratic aide.

The aide in a separate phone interview described that path forward as “the path of least resistance.” History supports that outlook; the House and Senate have each passed versions of the DREAM Act at different times over the past 16 years. The more progressive American Hope Act (HR 3591) likely remains out of reach with Republicans running Congress. “If we were in charge, we would do that, but right now, everyone is united in making it clear that we want a vote on the DREAM Act,” the aide said. “Democrats aren’t biting” when it comes to House GOP-led BRIDGE Act (HR 496) codifying DACA for just three years. And across the Capitol, Sen. Thom Tillis (R-NC) is planning to introduce a conservative vision of the DREAM Act as a companion to legislation introduced in March by GOP Rep. Carlos Curbelo (FL).

The Congressional Hispanic Caucus and House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-MD) are trying to force a vote on the DREAM Act through a “discharge petition” that would require 218 signatures to come to the floor. It’s unlikely to work, given the need for GOP support.

“We haven’t had any continued or substantive conversations with the other side yet,” the aide said. They plan to do so though. Pelosi wrote a letter to House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI) last week requesting a meeting with Democratic leaders and members of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus “to discuss a comprehensive legislative solution.”

“When we go in there, we’re going to say…‘We want the DREAM Act,’” the aide said. “That gives us the most leverage to negotiate if and when it comes down to it.”

It’s hard to say if Democrats will stand firm against GOP demands for the border. They’re “not willing to show their cards” ahead of meeting with Republicans, according to the aide.

But Democrats are up for the fight.

“We aren’t going into negotiations to trade amnesty for some for deportation for others,” the aide said. “So, when it comes to increased monies for ramped up interior enforcement or border agents and especially the border wall, we’re going to push back on them.”

Per the first senior House Democratic aide: “I don’t see Democrats agreeing to making DACA recipients a bargaining chip.”

Republicans are poised to demand some or all of those concessions from Democrats. As Politico reported:

Multiple pro-DACA House and Senate sources have speculated that a legislative fix for Dreamers could pass the House with support from Democrats and moderate Republicans. But [Speaker] Ryan would take serious heat from conservatives if he were to allow that without getting anything in return.

That’s why Republican leaders, working with the White House, will likely seek a narrow deal that would extend the program while adopting some of Trump’s signature campaign promises on immigration.

At the top of the list: a down payment on Trump’s border wall with Mexico. Other options included changes to visa programs or other immigration policies aimed at tightening migration to the U.S. and movement across the border.

Although Graham has repeatedly dismissed Trump’s proposed 2,200-mile border wall, the DREAM Act lead GOP sponsor wants White House Chief of Staff General John Kelly’s input on other concessions. Kelly’s six-month tenure as Trump’s secretary of Homeland Security prior to heading to the White House earned him “a new reputation as one of the most aggressive enforcers of immigration law in recent American history,” the New Yorker’s Jonathan Blitzer wrote.

“There’s some places you don’t need a wall at all,” Graham said in a Wednesday morning appearance on CNN.

“Sensors and drones can do the job.”

Graham’s willingness to cede to Kelly and drones underscores divisions among key players, including those who see themselves as allies.

Republicans and Democrats alike continue to push what advocates say is the harmful narrative that DACAmented youth were brought here through “no fault of their own.”

And Graham, a longtime immigration reform advocate, praised Trump, a man he once called “a race-baiting, xenophobic, religious bigot,” for ending DACA. Graham used part of Tuesday’s press conference with Durbin to describe the Obama-era executive order establishing the program as “unconstitutional overreach,” even though there’s much debate among constitutional scholars and law professors about whether the White House had the power to act unilaterally.

Writing for Rewire, legal analyst Rebecca Buckwalter-Poza determined that claims of DACA’s unconstitutionality have no legal substance. The attorneys general from 15 states and the District of Columbia have already filed suit against Trump’s “racial animus.”

Trump is willing to sign the DREAM Act, according to Pelosi. But he’s known for erratic policy shifts on Twitter, one day equivocating about the future of 800,000 young people, the next, reassuring them at Pelosi’s behest.

Trump can’t simply “revisit” DACA at that time due to various deadlines, Vox‘s Dara Lind wrote in an explainer directed toward the president. Will Congress, then, finally act to pass a policy goal 16 years in the making before Trump’s arbitrary March 5, 2018 deadline?

“Ultimately, March 5 is the deadline. Traditionally, Congress has waited until the last minute on a lot of things. Hopefully, we can find something sooner,” the second senior House Democratic aide said. “The scariest thing and I think what’s really motivating folks is that March 6 is when theoretically, the enforcement actions will be taken. We don’t know if it’ll come swiftly, quickly, for whom, for what, but we’re working as hard as we can to make sure that that day, that March 6, those folks are protected.”

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