Arkansas Republican Sen. Tom Cotton, who after the departure of Jeff Sessions has emerged as the Senate's leading immigration hawk, says he would support the legalization of all current DACA recipients -- nearly 800,000 of them -- if Congress would at the same time pass measures to protect Americans workers from the effects of that legalization.
DACA, which stands for Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, was created by President Obama's unilateral decision to shield from deportation and grant work permits to people who were brought illegally to the United States as children. President Trump is set to announce Tuesday whether he will end the program. Congress would then decide the next step for the nation's so-called Dreamers.
"We ought to take care of them," Cotton said in a telephone conversation Sunday, noting that DACA recipients arrived in this country illegally "through no fault of their own."
"In any legislative fix, I would like to see them receive a green card," Cotton said. At the same time, he continued, "We ought to recognize that giving them legal status has two problems. First, it creates a whole new class of people who will then be eligible for a green card and citizenship -- namely, the extended family members of those who will receive legal status who can, through chain migration, get legal status themselves."
"Second," Cotton said, "it will encourage more illegal immigration.
The first problem can be fixed by passing the RAISE Act, Cotton said -- the bill Cotton has sponsored with fellow GOP Sen. David Perdue that would strictly limit chain migration as well as re-balance current immigration policy in favor of skilled immigrants.
The second problem could be addressed by extending E-verify across the country, which Cotton called "the best way to reduce more illegal immigration."
Cotton has conferred with President Trump and with White House staff on the upcoming decision on the fate of DACA. Cotton said the president's instincts are that DACA, imposed by Obama with no action from Congress in what many Republicans felt was an unconstitutional overreach, is simply not defensible in court.
That is important because several state attorneys general have threatened to sue the Trump administration on Tuesday if the president does not end DACA. The lawsuit threat has added time pressure to what was already a Trump campaign pledge to dismantle the program.
Republican insiders expect the president to do something that would satisfy the attorneys general enough so that they would postpone the lawsuit. Trump could end DACA, but do so on a delayed basis, as Politico reported Sunday, or he could take a lesser step, like halting any new work permits under the program.
Convincing the attorneys general to hold off would have the effect of creating time for Congress to come up with a fix for the DACA problem. And that is where the question of legalization comes in.
Would Senate Democrats, not to mention Republicans who supported the Gang of Eight comprehensive immigration reform bill, actually vote for the RAISE Act -- which some have already said they oppose -- in exchange for legal status for Dreamers? It's not at all clear. But there's no doubt that if the president puts DACA on a timetable to extinction, Congress will be on a deadline to do something. And that is when negotiating begins.
So far, most of the Republican lawmakers who have spoken out about DACA are supporters of comprehensive immigration reform -- Sens. Lindsey Graham, Thom Tillis, and Jeff Flake, as well as Reps. Mike Coffman and Carlos Curbello. And, of course, House Speaker Paul Ryan, who has called on the president not to end DACA, even though Ryan once described the program as "blatantly unconstitutional."
But the vast majority of Republican lawmakers have not been heard from. Most are united in their belief that President Obama overstepped his authority by instituting DACA. They believe the action would likely not survive court scrutiny. They believe they have to do something to accommodate current DACA recipients while not making the overall immigration problem worse. If the president ends DACA, it seems unlikely they would revive and codify the program without also enacting some significant reform of the immigration system.
DACA, Cotton said Sunday, is "a mess of President Obama's making." But now it's up to Republicans to clean up that mess. "We should find a way to give [DACA recipients] legal status," Cotton concluded, "but we also have to mitigate the inevitable consequences of that action."