The anticlimactic failure of U.S. immigration legislation last week sent senators scrambling for fallback options to avoid the deportation of young people who arrived in the country as children.
But amid upcoming fiscal deadlines, congressional election campaigns and a stubborn stalemate over legal immigration restrictions, none of the plans so far are enticing either side as the clock ticks toward expiration of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals that President Donald Trump has ordered to an end.
“What I expect is that DACA is going to expire and people will start losing their work permits,” said Mark Krikorian, who runs the Center For Immigration Studies, a group that seeks to cut immigration levels to the U.S. “There’ll be a non-zero number of DACAs taken into custody and removed. So we’ll have to see how that plays out politically.”
The courts have put Trump’s March 5 cutoff deadline on hold and a verdict may be pushed to June if the Supreme Court accepts the case on an expedited basis. That’s prompted another flurry of proposals in the Senate, none of which have any clear path to move forward.
Republican Sens. John Thune of South Dakota, Rob Portman of Ohio and Jerry Moran of Kansas proposed to give dreamers legal status without citizenship alongside $25 billion for border security, while Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., suggested extending their work permits for three years.
Texas Sen. John Cornyn, the No. 2 GOP leader, said a potential vehicle for a DACA solution looms in the form of a massive 2018 fiscal year spending bill that must clear Congress by March 23 to avert a third government shutdown this year.
“I’d rather have a permanent bill, but if we can’t do that maybe we’ll do something shorter,” he said. “I don’t see it getting dedicated floor time, if there can be some negotiation leading up to the omnibus perhaps there can be some temporary provision, which to me is not great but that’s kinda where we are.”
In the House, meanwhile, Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wisc., has refused to consider any legislation that doesn’t have Trump’s full backing and has made no commitment to bring any plan up for a vote.
A creeping fatalism is setting in among some Democrats.
“People need to be very clear in their minds that this issue is not going to get fixed as long as Republicans control Congress,” said Adam Jentleson, who worked for former Democratic Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev. “This is just the way it is.”
The ranking Democrat on the House Budget Committee, Kentucky Rep. John Yarmuth, said trying to tie an immigration measure to a March 23 funding bill to force the issue would backfire. “Clearly the American people, at least by the polling, thought it was more important to keep the government open than to deal with the dreamers,” he said in an interview. “You don’t want sympathy for the dreamers to be damaged, which I think there’s a potential for that.”
The Trump administration gave no sign it was ready to reopen negotiations. After the Senate failed to move ahead on any immigration legislation, White House press secretary Sarah Sanders blamed Democrats, saying in a statement they were “held hostage by the radical left in their party, which opposes any immigration control at all.”
The crux of the Senate stalemate is about legal immigration. Democrats acquiesced to Trump’s demand for $25 billion for border security, but they’ve stood firm against his calls to eliminate the ability of U.S. citizens to sponsor siblings, parents and adult children for green cards – at least in the context of a DACA fix. Trump has refused to support bipartisan measures without cuts to what he calls “chain migration,” and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., has stood by him.
What happens next?
“I have no clue. I really don’t,” said Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., who co-sponsored a bipartisan compromise that failed 54-45 after Trump and his aides made an all-out effort to kill it.
When asked whether he thinks DACA recipients — many of whom aren’t familiar with the countries their parents brought them from — will be deported if Congress takes no action, Sen. Angus King, I-Maine, a lead author of the compromise, said “Ask the president.”
Congress is off this week, and McConnell is planning to move on to confirming judicial and executive branch nominees when it returns. Any future effort to address immigration, including a pared-back version, is likely to face the same combustible political mix that brought down last week’s Senate proposals.
Republicans have a bigger political incentive to dig in on immigration than do Democrats. A full 62 percent of Republican voters said the issue should be a top priority for Trump and Congress, compared with just 39 percent of Democrats surveyed in a Jan. 10-15 poll by the Pew Research Center.
Hard-line immigration stances catapulted Trump to the Republican nomination and the presidency, putting intense pressure on his party to produce on the issue in a way that appeals to his base. Shortly before his election, the Pew Center found that 79 percent of registered voters backing him saw illegal immigration as a “very big problem.” Smaller percentages in the Oct. 25-Nov. 8, 2016 poll named other issues such as terrorism or jobs for working-class Americans.
GOP voter signals to Republicans are reflected in the way the immigration debate took shape in the Senate, with much higher demands from the Republican side than in 2013 when a Democratic-led chamber was able to easily clear a comprehensive bipartisan immigration bill.
The 2013 measure included a pathway to legal status for 11 million undocumented immigrants, paired with a $46 billion border security plan. The measure also had a host of other immigration law changes, including an end to a diversity visa lottery and limits on family-based immigration that barred citizens from sponsoring siblings and some married sons and daughters for permanent residence.
This time, the trade-off of restricting legal immigration was in return for helping a much smaller group of immigrants, about 1.8 million dreamers. The push by Trump and many Republicans for an end to the diversity visas and new limits on sponsorship to only spouses and minor children were unpalatable to many Democrats on a narrower measure.
GOP leaders are struggling as it is to come up with enough support for Trump’s plan. Only 39 senators on Thursday supported Trump’s favored package, including just three Democrats — Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota, Joe Donnelly of Indiana and Manchin, all of whom are facing re-election contests this November in states won handily by Trump. Some GOP conservatives — including John Barrasso of Wyoming, Ted Cruz of Texas, Mike Lee of Utah and Jim Inhofe of Oklahoma — objected to Trump’s favored legislation because it would give a path to citizenship to dreamers.
Krikorian said Speaker Ryan “dodged a bullet” with the failure of a DACA fix in the Senate. He argued that the failure frees Ryan to not act.
“The Democrats want this a lot more than Republicans do,” Krikorian said.