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Partisan Politics Hold Up Certainty for DACA Recipients (Updated)

Christine Grimaldi

Republicans "think that we can wait until March, but we really can’t”—not when 122 DACA recipients are losing their status every day.

UPDATE, December 21, 12:51 p.m.: The GOP-controlled Congress is preparing to vote on a continuing resolution without the DREAM Act, punting the fate of 800,000 DACA recipients to the new year. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) urged Democrats in a “Dear Colleague” letter to withhold support from the year-end, short-term spending measure “unless we see a respect for our values and priorities”—including “support for the DREAM Act.” Across the Capitol, Senate Democrats and Republicans have stepped up their negotiations with the White House, and a deal that couples the DREAM Act with border security measures “looks likely in January,” according to a Politico report.

The legislative fight over Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) is becoming a test of wills between parties and dividing Capitol Hill, with little insight into the outcome for 800,000 young undocumented immigrants who have lived in the United States under the program’s protections.

Of the legislative options, the DREAM Act is widely considered to be “the path of least resistance.” Identical versions (S 1615, HR 3440) pending in the U.S. House of Representatives and the U.S. Senate would provide undocumented youth who meet specific requirements with a pathway to become legal permanent residents. The perennial bills have taken on new urgency for DACA recipients following President Trump’s decision to end the program and put their futures in the congressional GOP’s hands ahead of a March 5, 2018 deadline.

But the DREAM Act bills haven’t gained traction in Congress. And the longer Congress waits, the more DACA recipients will lose their protected status.

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The House, for the most part, is split along party lines on the imperative to act, while the House and the Senate stand divided on strategy. House Democrats have been largely going at DACA alone, targeting it for inclusion in a must-pass spending bill over House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI) and his continued insistence on separating the issues. Senate Democrats, meanwhile, say they’re making progress on a deal with Senate Republicans but have yet to disclose details.

Although members of both parties generally support a legislative solution to help DACA recipients, they’ve been hindered by partisan politics of their own making. If DACA recipients haven’t already lost hope, as many have told  Rewire, it’s waning. Compounding their frustration: The “DREAMers” narrative that even the best-intentioned lawmakers have pushed on Capitol Hill.

The state of play in Washington can only be described as murky and subject to shifting political winds.

Divisions Hinder Progress

House Republicans last week in a rare display of unity on short-term spending passed a continuing resolution (CR) to fund the government through December 22. The CR turned into a political flashpoint, with all but 14 Democrats voting against it for not addressing DACA. Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-IL) called the CR a “disgrace” for failing to protect two key populations of marginalized youth: the 800,000 DACA recipients and the 9 million Children’s Health Insurance Program beneficiaries.

Congress will likely consider another short-term CR by the new December 22 deadline as congressional leaders in both chambers and parties hash out a longer spending deal with Trump.

Cue a potentially dramatic showdown in the House right before the holidays.

“The hard part is that everything just really hinges on whether or not the Republicans have the votes they need in order to pass [the next CR],” a House Democratic aide involved in day-to-day DACA work told Rewire.

“If they don’t need us, then we’re screwed,” the aide said. “If they do need us, then we’ve got a number of priorities, I think most important of which for us is getting the DREAM Act, making sure it’s in there. … We’re just in a holding pattern.”

Math could work in Democrats’ and DACA recipients’ favor. Republicans “have been unable to enact a single bill to fund the government without Democratic votes” since taking control of the House in 2011, according to a statement from Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-MD). But Republicans managed to pass last week’s CR with a handful of GOP votes to spare. Without any bipartisan support on the next go, Ryan could only afford to lose less than two dozen Republicans and still reach the simple majority required for passage. The approximately 30 members of the ultra-conservative House Freedom Caucus are always wild cards, especially on short-term spending bills they detest in favor of full-year defense appropriations.

Another 34 Republicans called on Ryan to pass a “permanent legislative solution” for DACA recipients by the end of the year.

“They are American in every way except their immigration status,” the Republicans wrote in a letter to the GOP speaker. They didn’t mention the DREAM Act. But they urged an increasingly rare bipartisan path forward, stressing that “reaching across the aisle to protect DACA recipients before the holidays is the right thing to do.”

Ryan in September charged a GOP-only group to find a DACA solution. As of Monday, the group hasn’t “agreed on a plan among themselves, much less within the wider Republican Party,” Bloomberg reported.

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) for months has threatened to withhold Democrats’ support for year-end spending bills over DACA, and last week, she maintained her pledge against leaving Washington at the end of the month without a legislative fix. That said, “Democrats are not willing to shut down the government, no,” the House minority leader told reporters during her weekly press conference.

Politico characterized this move as a retreat in a Tuesday evening report. “Top Democrats’ retreat from demands on a deal before 2018 ensures they won’t get blamed for a possible shutdown and won’t upend Senate talks on a bipartisan deal combining relief for Dreamers with border security,” the report said. “Those negotiations appear to be gaining momentum and may well bear fruit this month, particularly once Republicans reach a final agreement on their long-sought package of tax cuts.”

The House Democratic aide working on DACA countered Politico‘s depiction.

“I don’t think saying that you don’t want a government shutdown is saying that you’ve given up on finding a solution for DREAMers. It’s not one and the same,” the aide told Rewire Wednesday morning. Pelosi and House Democratic leaders are still very much fighting for a year-end solution, according to the aide.

Across the Capitol, bipartisan negotiations on DACA could yield a faster result, hopefully one that can pass in the next couple of weeks, according to a Senate Democratic leadership aide.

“We are optimistic that we will be able to do that, and we won’t be faced with the choice of a stand-off over the spending bill,” the aide told Rewire.

Senate Democrats and Republicans are working toward a deal that combines the DREAM Act with increased border security.

“It’s going to take a package like that for it to work,” the aide said. And then negotiators in all likelihood will have to turn to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) to find a legislative vehicle that can propel the deal to a final vote in the chamber.

McConnell, like Ryan in the House, recently downplayed the need to move quickly on DACA ahead of their other priorities.

To the contrary, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) on Tuesday identified DACA as one of his year-end priorities, albeit one that should be accompanied by a “significant investment in border security.” The Democratic aide described positive ongoing discussions between Senate Minority Whip Dick Durbin (D-IL), a longtime proponent of the DREAM Act, and Republican lawmakers—”not just the usual suspects who have always supported the DREAM Act, but some of the more conservative Republicans, which is heartening.” Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC), Durbin’s perennial DREAM Act co-sponsor, and Sen. Cory Gardner (R-CO) “have been very active on this for the Republicans,” the aide said, declining to name others involved.

Politics Versus People

Back in the House, Democrats are still preparing to advocate for DACA in the final weeks of 2017.

The House Democratic aide at work on a DACA fix said the party will continue working with advocates, immigrants, and immigration organizations to turn up the pressure on the Republican majority.

“They think that we can wait until March, but we really can’t”—not when 122 DACA recipients are losing their status every day, according to an estimate from the Center for American Progress. That number is expected to spike after the Trump-imposed deadline.

“That’s the main message that we’re going to be pushing out. At this point, that’s all that we can do from the minority [party].”

On Capitol Hill, the aide credited a “tightening of the lines from minority caucuses”—the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, the Congressional Black Caucus, and the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus—as well as the Congressional Progressive Caucus, with bolstering continued efforts to pass the DREAM Act.

Erika Andiola, a longtime immigrant rights activist behind the #OurDream campaign, plans to bring the fight to Washington and beyond.

“Many are coming to DC make [their] voices heard in Congress, but for us it is also important to make sure we are mobilizing all across the country to bring urgency to the American people,” Andiola said in an email. “I believe that the most pressure members of Congress feel from their constituents, the better.”

Eighty-four percent of the public, including 74 percent of Republicans, want Congress to address DACA, according to a December CBS News poll. Even a Fox News poll from September found that 62 percent of voters believe that congressional action is extremely or very important.

Activists plan to keep organizing in Washington and nationwide to heighten the urgency of the situation. “800,000 of us can’t afford not to do so,” Andiola said. “Not only will we be losing our work permits, but this administration has the keys to all of our information. We need to tell that story to everyone in this country.”

The extent to which DACA recipients’ futures will be weighed against border security measures at once alarms and frustrates many who reject the DREAM Act’s underlying good immigrant/bad immigrant framework, along with the political reality that their security may come at the expense of their loved ones’. Osmar Abad Cruz expressed concern to the Guardian about the extent to which DACA recipients like himself will be used as bargaining chips.

“I cannot accept a ticket to the American Dream at the expense of my mom being deported,” Cruz said.

“She cleaned offices for a living so we didn’t have to. She pushed us to become somebody. How can I turn my back on her and support something that has draconian immigration policies that will harm my community, my family?”

Pelosi has acknowledged Democrats will have to meet congressional Republicans’ and the Trump White House’ demands—to an extent.

“We’re not backing off anything, including meeting the needs of protecting our border,” she said during last week’s press conference. But “we’re not going to turn this country into a reign of terror of domestic enforcement and have the DACA, the DREAMers, pay that price.”

What Republicans want isn’t entirely clear. As Rewire reported in September, nativist lawmaking is at a high point in the House with pending bills pushed by anti-immigrant hate groups. The bills have been unable to advance in the Senate thanks in no small part to the upper chamber’s barriers for controversial legislation to become law.

The House Democratic aide lamented that Republicans “already get everything they want as far as border security” in a House-passed omnibus package of spending bills with no chance of advancing through the Senate in its current form. The virulently anti-choice omnibus provides nearly $1.6 billion for a border wall and, as Bloomberg reported, “an extra $620 million increase for interior immigration enforcement actions, including a 10 percent increase in the number of detention beds used to house undocumented immigrants.” The omnibus also supports hiring 500 new U.S. Customs and Border Protection agents and 1,000 U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials—each ten times below Trump’s goals to police immigrants. Trump’s wish list isn’t entirely unfamiliar, reflecting and building upon the Obama administration’s often regressive immigration policies.

For now, both Republicans and Democrats remain deadlocked on the futures of 800,000 young undocumented immigrants. The “DACAmented” have little faith in Washington but won’t stop fighting for their futures in the United States.

“Since high school, I’ve dreamed that something will pass. Dreamed that the struggling will end someday. But it still persists,” Christian Ugaz, a medical clinical research coordinator, said in assessing Washington’s work.

“I’ve lost a lot of hope because for so long, I’ve held onto something that never came to fruition. Politicians don’t care for us. If undocumented folks and allies keep on fighting, I think something has a chance of passing. But ultimately it will be up to the lawmakers to make a decision. I just hope by that point, we’ve pushed them to a corner so they’ll have no choice but to give us what we deserve and want.”

Immigration reporter Tina Vasquez contributed to this story.

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