President Donald Trump is calling on Congress to find a solution for the 800,000 young immigrants who he’s decided to make vulnerable to deportation.
"It is now time for Congress to act!" Trump tweeted on Tuesday, just ahead of Attorney General Jeff Sessions’s announcement that the administration would end the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, which allowed unauthorized immigrants who came to the US as children to secure work permits and avoid deportation.
Republican leadership in Congress say they want to take up the call. “It is my hope that the House and Senate, with the president’s leadership, will be able to find consensus on a permanent legislative solution that includes ensuring that those who have done nothing wrong can still contribute as a valued part of this great country,” House Speaker Paul Ryan said following Sessions’s announcement on Tuesday.
But it seems far from clear if Congress will be able to do so. Hill staffers say they don’t have confidence that Republicans will even hold a vote on the DREAM Act — which would put DACA beneficiaries on a more permanent path to legal residency.
Congress could take a more limited action, like passing a temporary extension for DACA recipients while stopping short of passing the full DREAM Act. But doing so would likely require Republicans to bridge their party’s divisions over immigration, including a fight over legalizing any unauthorized immigrants and the White House's expectations of what an acceptable "deal" might look like. Those internal divisions may be too difficult to overcome, and lead them to punt on DACA altogether.
“I’m very pessimistic this gets done,” a chief of staff for a Democratic member of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus said. “The easiest thing for Congress to do at any time is nothing, and I can’t imagine Ryan or [Senate Majority Leader Mitch] McConnell would risk splitting their caucus by bringing this up.”
In other words, congressional Republicans could very well move forward on September’s big-ticket congressional items — raising the debt ceiling, averting a government shutdown, and securing emergency relief funding for Houston — without protecting the DACA recipients most of them say they want protected.
Republicans have voiced lukewarm support for protecting DREAMers
It’s easy to find congressional Republicans who are willing to pay lip service to the idea that the DREAMers — who came to the US at the average age of 6 — should not be subject to deportation.
After Sessions’s press conference on Tuesday, Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) called Trump’s decision “unacceptable” and demanded passage of the DREAM Act. Even the party’s immigration hawks, like Sen. Tom Cotton (R-AR) say “we ought to take care of” the DREAMers and that they shouldn’t suffer because of the choices of their parents.
Similarly, Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) has reintroduced the DREAM Act in this Congress along with Sen. Dick Durbin (D-IL), and two Republican senators — Sens. Jeff Flake (R-AZ) and Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) — are co-sponsors on the bill.
“There are people in limbo,” Speaker Ryan said on the radio station WCLO on Friday, according to the Huffington Post. “These are kids that know no other country, who were brought here by their parents and don’t know another home, and so I really do believe there needs to be a legislative solution, that’s one that we’re working on.”
But despite these aspirations, some congressional Democrats worry that Ryan and McConnell won’t have the political muscle or the political incentive to bring the DREAM Act — or even a pared down version of it — to a vote.
That’s in part because congressional Republicans have their own internal rifts on immigration. For instance, while Cotton says he wants to protect DACA recipients, he’s also said that doing so should be paired with increased immigration enforcement. That position could prove a nonstarter among Democrats — whose votes Speaker Ryan would likely need to get any fix through Congress, assuming the hard-right House Freedom Caucus defects from a bipartisan deal.
Alternatively, Ryan could try crafting a bipartisan bill with support from Democrats and the moderates in his caucus — but nobody knows if enough Republicans would support it, given that most voted against the DREAM Act in 2010.
That’s why it’s worth paying careful attention to what Ryan’s statement did not do. The House speaker did not outline a schedule for voting on the DREAM Act, or point to a bill he supports for protecting DACA recipients. And that decision squares with immigration activists’ broader fear that Republicans will be unwilling to match their rhetoric on DREAMers with action that’s controversial within their own caucus. In August, for instance, members of Congress circulated a petition urging Trump to keep DACA. Only six congressional Republicans signed it.
Democrats aren’t completely unified on the DREAM Act
But it’s not just Republicans standing in the way of the DREAM Act. Another hurdle facing the bill’s passage is that it’s far from clear if every Democrat would vote for it.
Democrats are optimistic the overwhelming majority of the party’s House members would support the bill. Two CHC aides I spoke to expected only moderate Rep. Collin Peterson (D-MN) and a handful of other members to oppose the bill. (A spokesperson for Peterson would only say Tuesday that he hadn’t yet issued a statement about DACA.)
The Senate is likely to prove much trickier. Of the Democrats who voted against the DREAM Act when it failed in 2010, almost all have since been elected out of office, including Sens. Kay Hagan (D-NC) and Mark Pryor (D-AR).
But two remain. One, Sen. John Tester (D-MT), voted against the bill and characterized it as “amnesty.” Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV) missed the vote, but said he would have voted against the bill because it did not tie legalization to “completion of a degree.”
The offices of Manchin and Tester did not respond to Vox’s requests for comment on Tuesday. Tester did issue a statement Tuesday condemning Trump’s decision and vowing to find a “way forward for innocent kids,” though he did not commit to reversing his position on the DREAM Act. Another vulnerable Democrat, Sen. Joe Donnelly (D-IN), voted against the DREAM Act while in the House in 2010.
For now, the uncertainty is leaving Democrats focused on building a campaign of public resistance to pressure Congress into passing the DREAM Act or something similar. For months after Trump’s inauguration, it looked like Republicans would certainly have enough votes to repeal Obamacare — perhaps even with Democratic support. But a public campaign to save the Affordable Care Act helped solidify Democratic opposition to the Republican health bill, and activists are optimistic a similar story could replay itself on the biggest immigration fight.
“If the resistance is mobilized and goes all-in, like it did over the Muslim ban and health care, then perhaps you see some action in Congress,” the CHC chief of staff told me. “But if the activism is pretty middling, then it doesn’t give the resistance the power and the leverage to move.”