When Congress returns, negotiations over Deferred Action on Childhood Arrivals — former President Obama’s directive to shield some young undocumented immigrants from deportation — will resume and intensify. President Trump gave lawmakers a March 5 deadline to codify DACA in some form, but the program’s supporters worry about the thousands of beneficiaries who could lose their work permits if it takes that long.
The familiar pattern has been for immigration hawks to hold up any bill offering legal status to a significant number of illegal immigrants until their demands for border security and interior enforcement are satisfied; legalization boosters point to the enforcement measures already in their legislation as proof these demands are insatiable and cast the restrictionists as anti-amnesty absolutists.
Under Trump, the immigration conversation has broadened. Immigration hawks in Congress are offering to combine elements of bipartisan bills that would protect DACA beneficiaries from deportation — in some cases, even bestowing a more permanent legal solution — with specific restrictionist policy proposals: limits on family reunification; penalties for municipal authorities who don’t help enforce federal immigration detainer orders, known as sanctuary cities; stronger E-Verify to add teeth to prohibitions against hiring illegal immigrants.
“We’re offering a package that [Democrats] should support and in return they’re threatening to shut down the government,” Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., said on the Senate floor earlier this month, describing a compromise as “good for those DACA recipients.”
Some of the staunchest immigration restrictionists in Congress are willing to support what they’ve previously defined as amnesty — legalization, even a potential path to citizenship, of a class of undocumented immigrants — with no waiting period as part of a deal.
“No one is eager to deport 690,000 illegal immigrants who are here mostly through no fault of their own,” Cotton said. “They were left in legal limbo by President Obama, and everyone wants to find a good, durable, long-term solution.”
That is a significant departure from the immigration debates that took place between President George W. Bush’s second term and the 2013 Gang of Eight bill. And it is partly because Trump ran for president challenging the bipartisan immigration policy consensus of that time period, with an inner circle that includes other high-profile dissenters: Attorney General Jeff Sessions, domestic policy adviser Stephen Miller, and former White House chief strategist Steve Bannon.
In the Trump era, immigration hawks are willing to make a deal so long as they can take a page out of the president’s Art of the Deal.
“If we’re going to give legal status to these illegal immigrants in their 20s and their 30s, we have to recognize there are going to be negative side effects,” Cotton said in his Senate speech. “First, you’re going to encourage parents from around the world who live in poverty and oppression and war to illegally immigrate to our country with small children. What could be more dangerous and even immoral than that? And second, you’re going to create a whole new category of Americans who could get legal status for their extended family to include the very parents who brought them here in violation of our laws.”
Cotton and Sen. David Perdue, R-Ga., have argued that any bill that offers relief to those protected by DACA must also address these “negative side effects.” Trump has endorsed their efforts.
The president frequently talks about “ending chain migration” — a phrase for immigrants sponsoring future immigrants based on family ties — in his speeches. He mentioned it as he outlined his national security strategy. Trump brought it up in remarks at his Cabinet meeting last week. And the subject came up in his speech to FBI academy graduates earlier this month.
But the political and racial polarization of the Trump era has made compromise on immigration even more difficult. And just as some Republicans have moved right on the issue, many Democrats have moved left. Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., faced pressure to link DACA and the short-term spending bill before Congress went home for Christmas. Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., was criticized from the Left when he panned open borders during his progressive campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination.
It was these political conditions that led Obama to create DACA in the first place. He had previously tried to build credibility for a comprehensive immigration reform push, including large-scale legalization opportunities for the undocumented, by touting his administration’s record on deportations and enforcement. And he repeatedly denied he had the power to protect many illegal immigrants through executive authority alone without Congress changing the law.
Obama’s “deporter in chief” reputation became untenable.
Republicans also face pressure on the Right, where Trump’s talk of physical barriers may resonate more than technical details about chain migration and the most immigration-centric portion of the base may not be eager for compromise of any kind.
Nevertheless, both parties face a hard deadline on DACA during an election year and Republican congressional leaders, who are generally less restrictionist than Trump, have said they are committed to producing a bill the president is willing to sign.