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Can Congress solve DACA dilemma for Dreamers?

After the Trump administration rescinded the DACA program for young undocumented immigrants the ball is now in Congress' court. By setting a six-month deadline for phasing out DACA the White House added fresh urgency to the issue, which has festered for well over a decade on Capitol Hill.
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8 Sep 2017 – 12:51 PM EDT

History of the Dreamer struggle: five years of DACA

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President Donald Trump's decision to terminate the DACA program was described as "cruel" by some of his critics, but it could have a silver lining for the 780,000 young undocumented immigrants now under threat of deportation.

By calling on Congress to fix the problem Trump may have breathed new life into long-standing legislative proposals to legalize the so-called Dreamers after numerous previous failed efforts to address their status in this country.

"We're optimistic. This has galvanized the grass roots and there is political support across the spectrum," said Cathleen Farrell, director of communications at the National Immigration Forum. "And this is a very sympathetic group of people," she added, pointing out that many Dreamers are highly educated and contribute economically, to the tune of $400 million in DACA enrollment fees alone - every two years.

Some political observers are skeptical that either Democrats or Republicans have the political will to find common cause on such a toxic issue for conservatives. "Donald Trump got elected for being tough on immigration by voters who prioritized that," said Geoffrey Skelley at the University of Virginia Center for Politics. Conservative Republicans are going to be apoplectic."

Representative Steve King of Iowa, one of the toughest critics of illegal immigration, tweeted that an amnesty for DACA recipients "is Republican suicide."

Horse trading

It remains unclear what a solution might look like, with some conservative voices already murmuring about the need to link a fix for the Dreamers' dilemma to other immigration reform measures, including border security or funding for Trump's wall on the U.S.-Mexico border.

In such a horse trading scenario analysts wonder if there are aspects of immigration enforcement, such as improving security at border ports of entry, which might be palatable for all sides.

Congress also has its hands full with disaster funding for victims of Hurricane Harvey - and another pending disaster with Hurricane Irma, raising the nation's debt ceiling, as well as Trump's push for a tax overhaul.

So far, Trump has given no sign of what solution he would support.

That caused consternation among some political analysts. CNN commentators David Gergen took to Twitter to ask: “If Prez truly had heart for Dreamers, he would lead the charge to change the law in Congress. Clearly, he has rejected that path.”

Democrat minority leader Nancy Pelosi told reporters at her weekly news conference that Trump has indicated his support and willingness to sign into law the Dream Act, one of several proposals in Congress that would give a path to legalization to Dreamers. But the White House has not confirmed the specifics of their conversation.

The Dream Act, sponsored by Sens. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., and Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., includes the same protections as DACA and also creates a path for citizenship or permanent legal resident status if applicants meet certain requirements, such as having lived in the U.S. for a certain length of time and meeting certain educational, work or military service requirements. It would take at least 13 years for those eligible to achieve citizenship.

But, analysts say that neither the Dream Act, or several other similar proposals currently have the votes needed to become law.

There are signs of some Republicans softening their stance. Representative Cathy McMorris Rodgers of Washington, who chairs the House Republican Conference, said in a statement that while she opposed Obama's executive order that created DACA, she believed Congress should protect the Dreamers.

But Republican leaders may be concerned about alienating Trump’s political base, which is demanding increased border control and opposition to any measure that would grant legal status, or amnesty, to undocumented immigrants.

That appeared evident from a vaguely worded statement by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell after Tuesday’s announcement to rescind DACA.

"This Congress will continue working on securing our border and ensuring a lawful system of immigration that works,” he said, without making any specific reference to DACA.

Republicans who advocate limiting legal immigration also waded in. Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., said DACA legislation should be tied to his proposal - endorsed by Trump in July - that would cut the level of legal immigration in half. This proposal would appear to seek to make any amnesty for Dreamers part of an overall reduction in legal immigraiton.

“We must recognize that codifying the DACA program will have two negative consequences: encouraging future illegal immigration with minors and allowing those 800,000 people to obtain legal status for their family members via chain migration, which rewards the very people who broke the law in the first place and further depresses working-class wages,” Cotton said in a statement.

”Thus, we must mitigate these consequences by stopping the chain migration that hurts the working class and by strengthening the enforcement of our immigration laws. I've introduced legislation, the RAISE Act, that would limit the amount of low-skilled immigration coming into our country.”

White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders also suggested in her briefing on Tuesday that Trump wanted comprehensive reform and dodged on whether Trump would sign a bill addressed just at Dreamers.
In a tweet later Tuesday, Trump seemed to signal he wanted a broad overhaul of the immigration system and didn't single out DACA specifically.

“I look forward to working w/ D's + R's in Congress to address immigration reform in a way that puts hardworking citizens of our country 1st,” he tweeted.

Immigration advocates are pushing for a clean bill, worried that typical legislative horse trading could delay a solution. "There is such a short legislative window to get this done, and there are dire consequences if it's not done," said Farrell.

Immigration advocates point out that DACA recipients have already passed extensive background checks conducted by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) to ensure they do not pose a threat to national security, with convicted felons excluded from the program. DACA beneficiaries are also banned from receiving taxpayer funded welfare benefits. One study by the Cato Institute found that deporting the 800,000 Dreamers would actually cost the American taxpayer an estimated $60 billion.

The average DACA recipient is 22 years old, with roughly 65,000 High School graduates and another 10,000 college graduating annually.

Skeptics say the whole debate is an exercise in futility, pointing to previous efforts in Congress to pass legislation to protect Dreamers.

Rep. Luis Gutiérrez (D-IL) reminded his colleagues that he first introduced legislation in 2001, which only passed the House nine years later in 2010. When it came to a vote the Senate narrowly failed to get the necessary 60 votes to avoid a filibuster led by Republicans, including Jeff Sessions.

It was Sessions, now Attorney General, who announced the Trump administration's decision to rescind DACA on Tuesday.

Gutiérrez found it odd that Sessions was now the person urging Congress to pass legislation to protect the Dreamers. "When Sessions had a chance to do that, he led the fight to stop it. That is hypocrisy on steroids," he said.

The proposals

Besides the Dream Act, there are three other legislative proposals to legalize the Dreamers.

In March, Miami congressman Carlos Curbelo (R-Fla.) introduced a proposal, Recognizing America's Children Act, which also takes much of what was in DACA and codifies it, while also providing a pathway toward legal status and, eventually, citizenship.

"These are young people that went to school with our own children; they are working in this country; they are contributing to this country; they speak English," Curbelo said Tuesday on CNN's New Day. "This is the only country that many of them remember. So we should afford them — as long as they're willing to be productive members of society, which most of them are — we should afford them the opportunity to be fully recognized as Americans and to gain legal status in this country."

The American Hope Act, sponsored by Rep. Luis Gutierrez, D-Ill, has the backing of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus and does not include any work, education or military requirements as well as providing a faster path to citizenship. This proposal has zero Republican support and has little prospect of passing.

The BRIDGE Act, sponsored by Rep. Mike Coffman, R-Colo. was proposed back in January and would temporarily extend the current DACA program for three years as part of a drive to come up with comprehensive reform for the nation's entire immigration system.

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