The countdown is on. Ten Republican attorneys general and a Republican governor will sue the Trump administration in one month over the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, which currently protects hundreds of thousands of young immigrants from deportation.
The looming deadline—September 5—has Democratic lawmakers and activists on edge about DACA’s future. The program was established in 2012 by President Barack Obama through an executive action; it has allowed nearly 800,000 undocumented immigrants to temporarily remain in the United States and work legally.
Those benefits would disappear if the court challenge prevails. It's being led by Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton, who argues Obama overstepped his constitutional authority in granting "amnesty" to these young people, known as dreamers.
That same legal argument, made in the same court where Paxton is threatening to sue, helped paralyzed Obama's program to expand deportation protection to the parents of U.S.-born children, known as Deferred Action for Parents of Americans (DAPA).
Amid fears that the Trump administration might do away with DACA, lawmakers on both sides of the aisle have introduced legislation in recent months to protect young dreamers. But the main priority is to keep DACA in place, they say, and to encourage President Trump to push back against the legal challenge.
“Our first goal, to be explicit, is that the Trump administration preserve DACA,” said Frank Sharry, president of the national immigration reform group America’s Voice, during a press call last Thursday. “We’re not giving up on that.”
Last week, a group of 156 Democrats, led by Rep. Raul Grijalva of Arizona, sent a letter to President Trump urging him to defend DACA and ask a federal court in Texas to dismiss Paxton's complaint. They also requested his administration refuse any settlement that would effectively end the program.
“Ultimately, you set the government’s immigration policy, including your Administration’s position in regards to DACA,” the letter reads. “We urge you to respond to Texas’ threat to your executive authority by directing the Attorney General (Jeff Sessions) to use all legal options to defend DACA.”
Grijalva said the letter builds up on the pressure that's already facing Republican leaders (like Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and House Speaker Paul Ryan) who can bring legislative solutions to a vote if DACA is eliminated.
The plan is to build momentum against Republican inaction, he explained: “This is a fight on many levels, with many strategies.”
Fighting for a permanent solution
For months, Trump has promised to find a humane solution that would seal the fate of the hundreds of thousands of DACA beneficiaries. In February, he vowed to treat dreamers “with heart” during a news conference; in April, he said they could “rest easy” because he’d focus his deportation efforts on so-called criminals.
But legislators are wary.
In June, the former Secretary of Homeland Security, John F. Kelly, told a group of Hispanic lawmakers that he couldn’t protect dreamers if there were no legislative options on the table.
“That excuse is now gone,” says Grijalva, alluding to four proposals that have already been introduced in Congress this year to protect dreamers.
Although Kelly was recently tapped as White House chief of staff and replaced by Acting Secretary Elaine Duke, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) position on DACA “remains the same,” according to DHS spokesman David Lapan.
“The future of the DACA program continues to be under review with the Administration. With regard to DACA, the President has remarked on the need to handle the issue with compassion and with heart,” Lapan said, adding that “Congress is the only entity that can provide and legislate a long-term solution to this issue.”
An uphill battle
Passing legislation in Congress to protect undocumented youth has long been an elusive goal, with a number of failed attempts since 2001. No bill has ever been passed by both chambers, and Democrats know it’s an especially uphill battle in a Republican-controlled Congress.
But if DACA is eliminated by Trump or in court, Sharry said, activists will “fight like hell” to push forward one of the four bills that could replace it.
The most likely to pass is the bipartisan Dream Act, introduced last month by Senators Lindsey Graham (Republican from South Carolina) and Dick Durbin (Democrat from Illinois). It would provide a pathway to citizenship for dreamers, as long as they entered the country by the age of 17.
A bipartisan measure that mirrors DACA but does not grant dreamers legal status, known as the Bridge Act, has been stuck in committees since January.
Republicans have yet to signal whether the Dream Act will suffer the same fate: neither Ryan nor McConnell’s offices answered questions from Univision on whether they're open to forcing a vote on the bill. “I would have to refer you to the Judiciary Committee,” said Ryan's spokeswoman, AshLee Strong, in an email.
But even if the bills to replace the program remain stuck in committees, activists and Democratic lawmakers hope their pressure could at least convince Republicans to keep DACA in place for now.
“It is hard to pass legislation,” Sharry conceded. But “there is a more immediate purpose, which is to signal to the White House that they should do the right thing and keep DACA in place. If Republicans think this is an issue they can easily stall and obstruct on, blocking the future of 800,000 people who are American in anything but paperwork, there’s going to be hell to pay and we’re going to bring it.”