The debate over what to do about the approximately 700,000 Dreamers – immigrants who were brought to the U.S. illegally as children – has often been conducted at a playground level.
Democrats are threatening to shut down the government at midnight Friday night unless the Dreamer issue is resolved on their terms. President Trump is reported to have used some kind of obscenity to describe his view of some of the countries Dreamers and other immigrants come from.
Immigration activists have freely and openly accused the president of being a “racist” or worse. In this kind of a toxic environment, it will be amazing if both sides can bridge the enormous gap between them.
Senate Democrats, along with a handful of Republicans, want to legalize the Dreamers and put them on a 10- to 12-year path to citizenship. These senators would also provide $2.7 billion for more border security and impose a very modest limit on “chain migration” – the ability of legal immigrants who hold green cards to sponsor relatives to enter the U.S.
House Republicans, led by Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte, R-Va., are willing to provide Dreamers with three years of renewable legal status – but no green cards or a path to citizenship. The House bill would also provide $30 billion for a wall along the border with Mexico and require employers to use E-Verify – a database that checks the immigration status of any job applicants.
Tamar Jacoby, the president of the business-oriented lobby ImmigrationWorks USA, says there “is a vast gulf” between the two sides that she doesn’t see being bridged easily.
White House Chief of Staff John Kelly says President Trump wants to fix the Dreamer problem before their legal right to stay in the country expires March 5. The Dreamers have been allowed to legally stay in the U.S. under the DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) executive order signed by President Obama in 2012.
Kelly says the administration’s priority is to “actually come up with a bill that will pass both houses” and reach the president’s desk.
Kelly told reporters Wednesday: "The president that I work for wants 700,000 or so DACA recipients, the vast majority of whom are now adults, to have a way to stay in the United States legally. He wants that. That's a given. But what we cannot have is an unprotected, unsecured southwest border that five, six, seven years from now, we have another group of 600 or 700,000 DACA people."
Luckily, we may have some breathing room if a government shutdown doesn’t poison the policy well this weekend. The Trump administration announced this week it would temporarily leave protections for the Dreamers in place while it appeals to the Supreme Court a federal district judge’s ruling.
The district judge ruled that President Trump had no right to overturn President Obama’s executive order creating the DACA program. President Trump’s move to temporarily leave protections for Dreamers in force gives both Congress and the White House time to negotiate a permanent fix.
The problem is that many people believe that many Democrats don’t want a fix to let the Dreamers stay in the U.S., but instead want a campaign issue for the November midterm elections. News stories about young adults being forced to return to countries they barely remember could become that campaign issue.
President Trump still believes that President Obama’s DACA executive order was an unconstitutional expansion of presidential authority. But he has expressed some sympathy for the position Dreamers are in: “They got brought here at a very young age, they’ve worked here, and they’ve gone to school here. Some were good students. Some have wonderful jobs. And they’re in never-never land because they don’t know what’s going to happen.” “
“Most Republicans know the polls show Americans want to find a way for the Dreamers to stay,” Jacoby told me. “They want to resolve the issue and move on.”
I’m not so sure about Democrats in Congress. Several have told reporters privately that they want to deny Republicans any relief from hostile media coverage on the issue of the Dreamers, retake Congress this November and then have more leverage to tilt any solution in their direction.
Democrats definitely do not allow any deviation from their ranks when it comes to a permissive immigration policy. Current family unification laws create unfair and arbitrary outcomes and often strain public services for existing citizens when they allow green card holders to bring in foreign parents, adult children or siblings.
It makes sense to focus on uniting nuclear families rather than broadening immigration rights to ever-growing extended families. But every single Democrat in the Senate is insisting that the current laws be preserved with only the most modest of changes.
Any Democrat who expresses any doubt is dealt with severely. This week, two prominent Illinois House Democrats took the extraordinary step of calling for the defeat of a home-state colleague in the March 20 Democratic primary.
Rep. Dan Lipinski has sponsored legislation to allow Dreamers to remain in the U.S. But the Chicago Democrat is open to reforming current immigration law, such as the family reunification provisions. And in 2015 he voted against a bill admitting large numbers of Syrian refugees that was backed by President Obama.
For that, and other sins against the liberal orthodoxy, Democratic Reps. Jan Schakowsky and Luis Gutierrez of Chicago have called for Lipinski’s defeat.
Politico reported: “The public shunning of a colleague on issues is almost unheard of in Congress.... If it’s done it happens quietly, behind the scenes.”
Given all of this political posturing and score settling, perhaps it’s time to listen to the few clearly moderate voices in Congress in crafting an eventual immigration solution.
This week, a bipartisan bill was introduced in the House by members from states that border Mexico. Its chief GOP co-sponsor is Rep. Will Hurd of Texas, who won the American Conservative Union’s 2016 Award for Conservative Achievement.
Hurd represents the congressional district that has the longest border with Mexico – over 800 miles. Along with chief Democratic co-sponsor Pete Aguilar of California, he would combine an extension of protections for Dreamers with comprehensive funding for a physical barrier on the Mexican border, more Border Patrol agents and stepped-up use of technology to detect intruders.
“Let's be narrow, and let's be bipartisan” Hurd told NPR this week. “And solving a narrow problem builds trust, build momentum to address some of these other issues.” He said there is room to both provide protections for the Dreamers and step up border security.
On the border, Hurd says the key question is: how does the U.S. get operational control of the border. “The reason we haven't done this in the past is because we haven't looked at all 2,000 miles of border at the same time. And so you can't have a one-size-fits-all solution because every mile needs something different. And so let's be smart about this. Let's be cost-effective about this.
The more that I have reported on immigration and border issues, the more I have concluded that the loudest voices in the debate aren’t the wisest. Both sides raise a great deal of money from partisans who are on one side or the other of this issue. Before we have either a government shutdown or a complete breakdown in civility, it’s time for average voters to demand that new voices with real solutions be given a say in the immigration debate.