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Senators in both parties are trying to protect young immigrants from Donald Trump

A new bill would allow hundreds of thousands of DREAMers to keep the protections they got under President Obama — but only for a while.

DREAMer arrested
An immigrant protesting in a Congressional office building on behalf of the DREAM Act is arrested by Capitol Police.
Mark Abramson/the Washington Post via Getty

More than 700,000 immigrants have no idea what their lives are going to look like six weeks from now. They’re currently protected from deportation and allowed to work legally in the US under President Obama’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program (which began in 2012), but President-elect Donald Trump could revoke those protections on day one of his presidency if he so chose.

Trump reassured Time magazine on Wednesday that he’d “work something out” to help those immigrants. Now, Sens. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) and Dick Durbin (D-IL) are giving Trump a way to do that: the BRIDGE Act, a bill that would grant three more years of protection to the immigrants Obama protected, replacing his executive actions with a legislative one.

It’s not clear whether the bill will pass Congress — or whether Trump would want to sign it if it did. And even if it did pass, the BRIDGE Act would only protect a fraction of the unauthorized immigrants currently worrying about their futures under Trump.

But it’s an important fraction. The people helped by Obama’s deportation protections — the “DREAMers” — are incredibly politically sympathetic: They “were brought” to the US as children (and therefore aren’t to “blame” for their unauthorized status), they’ve grown up in the US, they’re educated, they speak English. They’ve become adept at telling their stories and advocating for themselves.

Only 28 percent of Americans, according to a post-election poll, want to see Trump strip protections from those immigrants; 58 percent would oppose it. If Donald Trump, who kicked off his campaign by talking about immigrant rapists and murderers, kicks off his presidency by revoking work permits from, say, 20-something engineers with Southern accents, he might face a serious political backlash — and so would Republican legislators.

The BRIDGE Act could give Republicans an easier way out. Or it could lay bare, once again, the tensions within the Republican Party between members who are willing to compromise on behalf of “good” immigrants and those who believe that unauthorized immigrants should categorically not be rewarded with protection.

The BRIDGE Act would allow immigrants eligible for Obama’s protections to remain and work in the US for three years under Trump

Sens. Graham and Durbin aren’t proposing to put any immigrants on a path to citizenship with this bill, or even grant them full legal status. Instead, they’re going to create a new immigration category called “provisional protected presence” (PPP), which would have the same privileges that beneficiaries of Obama’s 2012 DACA program have now: protection from deportation and the ability to work legally in the US, get drivers’ licenses, and apply to travel abroad.

PPP would be open to the same immigrants who already qualify for DACA: people born after June 1981 who came to the US as minors and grew up here, have met certain educational requirements, and can pass a criminal background check.

The 740,000 immigrants who currently have DACA — but who would need to apply for renewals at some point over the next two years — would just apply for PPP once their DACA grants neared their expiration date.

PPP would also be open to the several hundred thousand immigrants who are eligible for DACA but who haven’t applied for it under Obama, and to people who aren’t currently eligible but might become so (for example, immigrants who turn 16 in February 2017).

daca clinic

Like DACA, PPP wouldn’t be a magic ward against deportation — if an immigrant committed a crime, she’d lose status. And unlike DACA, PPP wouldn’t be renewable. Three years after the passage of the BRIDGE Act, assuming Congress still hadn’t passed a permanent fix on immigration, everyone who had provisional protected status would lose it — all at once.

Giving Trump a way to “work something out” while avoiding a big political clash

The BRIDGE Act is not going to get passed before President Donald J. Trump is inaugurated on January 20. But the bill’s supporters are pitching it as a way he can resolve the fear and uncertainty around what happens to current DACA beneficiaries — something that’s become a surprisingly touchy political topic for Republicans after Trump’s election.

We’ve been here before. The fate of the “DREAMers” (so called because of the DREAM Act, which was proposed on various occasions between 2003 and 2010 as a way to legalize young unauthorized immigrants) has always been fertile ground for supporters of legalization — and tricky ground for immigration hard-liners.

The DREAM Act was supposed to be a middle ground between full “amnesty” and a hard line against any relief for the unauthorized: Even Republicans who didn’t want to reward immigrants who chose to violate US law could get behind a plan to help people who “had no choice” in coming to the US as children.

When the DREAM Act failed to pass cloture in the Senate in 2010, few Republican opponents attacked the idea of granting relief to DREAMers; they were more likely to complain that the bill hadn’t been given a proper airing. And when President Obama, in response to the failure of the DREAM Act, used executive authority to grant temporary protection to the immigrants the DREAM Act would have helped — by creating the DACA program — the criticism from Republicans focused on how Obama had done it, not whom he had helped.

After the election, the question of what Trump will do with DACA has become unavoidable — and leading Republicans are just as sensitive as they’ve always been not to say that these people should be kicked out of the US.

Speaker of the House Paul Ryan has said that they won’t “pull the rug out” from under DACA recipients. Trump and his top aides have promised that Trump will focus his initial deportation efforts on “criminals” (though they appear to have a broader definition of “criminal” than you might think).

And while Trump’s plan for the first 100 days of his presidency includes a promise to reverse all of President Obama’s “unconstitutional” executive actions — which most of his supporters believe includes DACA — the plan doesn’t include any explicit promises to strip protections from immigrants.

Ida Mae Astute/ABC via Getty

The BRIDGE Act’s supporters are hoping that they can persuade President Trump to allow DACA to remain in place — continuing to protect people who already have protections, and continuing to allow USCIS to grant protection to people applying for the first time — until the act passes, without having people fall back into the shadows and become vulnerable to deportation while waiting for Congress to step in.

Trump, characteristically, has promised that he’ll “work something out” on DACA “that’s going to make people happy and proud,” without offering any hints whatsoever as to what that might be. The logic behind the BRIDGE Act is that Trump can seize on it as the “something.”

Of course, the element of Trump’s base that is already salivating at the possibility of mass deportations would be disappointed and furious if Trump doesn’t revoke DACA — and even more disappointed and furious if he signs a bill allowing hundreds of thousands of people to stay. (And Trump’s own attorney general nominee, Jeff Sessions, would probably counsel the president not to sign the BRIDGE Act.) But if Trump wants to play dealmaker, he’s going to end up upsetting those people anyway.

What will Republicans want in return?

The BRIDGE Act’s supporters see it as a commonsense, bipartisan bill that can easily pass at least one chamber of Congress. If that were true of any immigration bill, we wouldn’t be in this position to begin with.

Over the past decade, any attempt in Congress to grant relief to unauthorized immigrants has failed, often in the face of strenuous opposition from conservative opponents of “amnesty.” Bills are consistently designed to be bipartisan and then consistently become partisanized. The DREAM Act, too, was supposed to be commonsense bipartisan legislation, and it stalled out — which is why Obama created DACA to begin with. The 2013 “Gang of Eight” bill was designed by equal numbers of Democrats and Republicans, only to require substantial compromises to get other Republican senators on board and die when the House rejected the idea of a “comprehensive” approach to immigration entirely.

Those political dynamics certainly aren’t any different in the age of Donald Trump. In fact, the anti-amnesty wing of the party seems emboldened (with valid reason) by his election.

That’s not to say the bill can’t get any Republican support. The Senate bill is essentially Graham’s idea — and while he’s one of the Senate’s few remaining pro–immigration reform Republicans, he still has some clout. Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) is among the original cosponsors; Sen. Jeff Flake (R-AZ), who worked with Graham on the Gang of Eight immigration bill, has also been rumored to be interested.

Even Republicans who generally take a harder line on immigration have indicated some interest in a “soft landing” (in the words of North Carolina Republican Sen. Thom Tillis) for DACA recipients. Tillis and Sen. Roy Blunt of Missouri (who voted against the 2013 reform bill) have both indicated they might support some form of protection for DREAMers, according to Politico’s Seung Min Kim. Blunt, however, has said that it will depend on what the Trump administration’s plans for revoking DACA actually are — which could result in a legislative vaudeville routine in which Congress and the White House stand in front of the door telling the other one to go in first.

With this sort of interest, it’s possible that Graham and company can round up 60 Senate votes for the BRIDGE Act as it stands. But it’s extremely unlikely they’ll be able to do so in the House; despite Speaker Ryan’s support for some sort of solution for the DREAMers, House Judiciary Chair Rep. Bob Goodlatte (R-VA) has shown little interest in any bills to protect unauthorized immigrants, and the House Freedom Caucus tried to force a government shutdown in 2015 over Obama’s use of executive action to protect unauthorized immigrants.

steve king
Iowa Rep. Steve King (R-IA) can be expected to fight the BRIDGE Act tooth and nail.

The question, then, is going to be whether House Republicans are willing to negotiate: whether some of them would be induced to support the BRIDGE Act in exchange for more spending on border security, or on broader immigration enforcement against the 10 million unauthorized immigrants not protected by the bill.

It would then be up to House Democrats to determine how much of a compromise they’re willing to accept. Immigration advocates have spent years fighting against the idea of throwing over some immigrants to protect others — especially when most potential BRIDGE Act beneficiaries have parents who’d be vulnerable to tougher enforcement. But the DREAMers are a politically sympathetic class of immigrant, and the logic for protecting them — even at the expense of other immigrants who might not be as well-educated or fluent in English — might be compelling to legislators.

Even if it passes, the BRIDGE Act would become the Cliff Act after three years

Even if the BRIDGE Act passes, there’s no guarantee it would work. As the federal government and community groups learned in 2012 with DACA, it’s extremely hard to educate a population of people in the shadows about a complex government application process — and even harder to keep misinformation and scams from spreading. But since many potential BRIDGE Act beneficiaries are already on the books with DACA, it’s likely that several hundred thousand immigrants could stay protected under the bill.

But only for three years. The BRIDGE Act only allows “provisional protected presence” for three years after the date the bill passes. So instead of gently “sunsetting” protections, as the White House could do with DACA right now (allow people to keep their DACA protections they have now, but prevent them from getting renewed, so that they’ll just run out after their current two-year grant), everyone will lose PPP status at once.

Ostensibly, the plan is that by then, Congress will have found a more permanent solution. Given congressional paralysis on immigration over the past decade, that seems fairly unlikely.

It’s possible that PPP could become like other policies that are supposed to be “temporary” but in practice keep getting renewed indefinitely — like the Medicare “doc fix” was, or like temporary protected status (for immigrants from certain countries facing humanitarian crisis). But it’s just as possible that Congress would be setting itself — and hundreds of thousands of immigrants — over a cliff in 2019.

That wouldn’t be great for the people the BRIDGE Act is supposed to help. But the bill’s proponents point out that the alternative is what they’re suffering through now: Even immigrants who currently have protections under DACA have no idea whatsoever what’s going to happen to them — whether they’ll have jobs, whether they’ll be able to drive, whether they’ll have to constantly be on the lookout for ICE agents — six weeks from now. Compared with that level of uncertainty, three years seems like an outright victory.