Republicans and Democrats are on a collision course on immigration that could leave 800,000 unauthorized Americans who came to the United States as children without protection against deportation.
It all comes down to a game of political chicken, in which both Republicans and Democrats are trying to demonstrate that they have leverage in negotiations over a legislative fix for the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program — the Obama-era immigration order that President Donald Trump’s administration has already begun sunsetting and plans to finally end in March.
Less than a month ago, it looked like there were the outlines of a deal: protections for DACA recipients in exchange for some kind of border security package (but not wall funding) and even detention funding, along the lines of what Trump told Democratic leaders Sen. Chuck Schumer (NY) and Rep. Nancy Pelosi (CA).
Republicans, particularly conservatives, are adamant about reaching consensus among their own ranks first — and quick to wave away any indication of a Democratic-led deal.
“If Chuck Schumer and Nancy Pelosi believe they are running the show, the day of reckoning will soon be coming,” Rep. Mark Meadows (R-NC), who chairs the House’s conservative Freedom Caucus, told Vox.
To complicate things further, over the weekend the White House put out legislative priorities on DACA that signaled a much more robust immigration reform package than the Trump administration had previously floated, including funding for a southern border wall, provisions that make it much harder for people to seek asylum, and a mandatory E-Verify employment verification system. Democrats see most of those demands as “poison pills,” and some even conflict with Republicans’ proposals.
"We believe that there's still an opportunity to come to an agreement, but the White House and the president have to be reasonable," Rep. Joaquín Castro (D-TX) told reporters Monday. "This was not serious."
Any deal on DACA will need bipartisan support in Congress and Trump’s signature. At this point, all three of those parties appear to be acting like they run the show, and not one of them has reached any kind of consensus.
Conservatives were promised this would be a Republican-led effort
House Speaker Paul Ryan made conservatives a promise on immigration policy.
“Some of the concern with Paul Ryan coming into the speakership was that immigration bills would come down with predominantly Democrat votes and just enough Republican votes ... to reach that 218 votes,” Meadows said.
But Ryan assured them otherwise: Anything on immigration would have the support of the majority of the majority.
It’s a point Ryan has pressed throughout. After reports of Trump’s meeting with Pelosi and Schumer, he emphasized that no “deal” had been made. He ruled out a clean vote on the DREAM Act — which has overwhelming support from Democrats and some support from Republicans, like Sens. Jeff Flake (AZ), John McCain (AZ) and Lindsey Graham (SC).
"What we're going to do in the House Republican conference is pass a bill that has the support of the president, and therefore I believe the majority of our members, and that bill is going to have to include security measures to deal with the root cause of the problem, which is, we have unsecured borders," Ryan said in an interview with the Associated Press last month.
His comments likely found some goodwill with the House conference, largely caught off guard by what appeared to be a Democratic-led effort to shape immigration legislation with Trump. Breaking from that promise would be a major breach of trust and, after several failed Obamacare repeal attempts, one that would come at a time when Republican leadership is already facing an uphill battle with conservatives.
But reaching a majority of a majority won’t be an easy task for Republicans — especially if they still need at least eight Democrats in the Senate to reach the 60-vote threshold, and if they are going to follow Trump’s most recent directive.
Republicans are all over the map on DACA. Even the contours of a Republican alternative to the DREAM Act, which have been proposed in both the House and the Senate, have received a flanking from the party.
Those plans provide an eventual path to citizenship for DACA recipients, create “merit-based” residency programs for children who arrived in the United States before the age of 16, and wouldn’t allow recipients to sponsor family members to the United States on a green card — a direct nod to Trump’s recent calls against “chain migration.”
Many conservatives say any path to citizenship is “amnesty” — and something they won’t support — and Democrats, with eyes set on the DREAM Act, are saying a bill that doesn’t include such a path is a nonstarter. Regardless, Republicans appear adamant about showing their majority on immigration.
The White House opened — and then closed — the door for Democrats to have leverage
In Washington, there are two kinds of policy debates. There are those that happen very loudly, along typical partisan lines, with no discernible movement in either direction — and typically have no hope of making it past the Senate’s 60-vote threshold. Then there are those that happen very quickly, often behind closed doors and in a rush to beat an impending deadline — and typically end up on the president’s desk.
Until Sunday, it looked like finding some kind of fix for the DACA program before the recipients’ work permits start running out in March was going to fall in the second category. But the Trump administration may have pulled it back into the first.
Only last month, Trump met with moderate Democrats and Republicans and top Democratic leaders to hash out the contours of a DACA deal. He seemed to confirm what was largely reported from a dinner he had with Pelosi and Schumer: an assurance that the southern border wall could wait, and that he would support some kind of DACA fix paired with border security.
But on Sunday, as Vox’s Dara Lind wrote, the White House did a total 180, “asking for Congress to enact Trump’s entire immigration platform from the 2016 campaign, and then some.”
Democrats, of course, are standing firm: On a call with reporters Monday, the Congressional Hispanic Caucus Democrats took turns dismissing the White House’s “principles” as a “nonstarter,” a “Breitbart Christmas wish list,” and the “worst stated immigration principles ... I’ve ever seen by any White House, ever.”
Already Democrats have staked their ground on immigration: First and foremost, they want “clean” passage of the DREAM Act. Short of that alone, they say they would agree to some additional border security enforcement — but nothing close to what Trump’s White House proposed on Sunday.
"There's a lot of must-pass pieces of legislation that require Democratic support to get them over the finish line, and Democrats have made it clear that if the DREAM Act is not addressed ... they're not going to have any Democrats to get them over the finish line," Rep. Michelle Lujan Grisham (D-NM), chair of the Hispanic Caucus, told reporters on Monday.
Democrats aren’t promising to block the must-pass measures for anything short of a clean DREAM Act extension. “We are open to reasonable, effective border security,” Lujan Grisham said on the call.
Unlike in past policy debates, the White House has played a heavy hand in the immigration negotiations on Capitol Hill, but as with the administration’s past forays into policy, their directives have been mixed and at times contradictory. The result has been a growing tension between Democrats and Republicans, both of whom have been given room to stake some leverage in negotiations. Regardless of the White House’s machinations, it appears Republicans are keeping their heads down.
“The House immigration working group will review these principles and continue to consult with our conference and the administration to find a solution,” Doug Andres, Ryan’s spokesperson, said in a statement to Vox.