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Anxiety on both sides as Senate opens debate on Dreamers, immigration

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., speaks before a vote to open debate on immigration on Feb. 12, 2018. (CNN Newsource)

Hours before the Senate voted by a margin of 97-1 to launch an open debate on immigration reform Monday, President Donald Trump said it is up to Democrats to determine the fate of the vulnerable faction of young undocumented immigrants who have become the focus of the discussion.

So-called Dreamers, young immigrants who were brought to the country illegally as children, could lose the protection from deportation conferred on them by the Obama-era Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program next month.

“We think there’s a good chance of getting DACA done if the Democrats are serious and they actually want to do it,” Trump said at a meeting with state and local officials on infrastructure.

Democrats supported DACA under Obama as Republicans challenged its constitutionality in court, and they have unsuccessfully urged the GOP to allow a clean vote on legislation providing 800,000 DACA recipients with permanent legal status. Trump announced last fall that he would end the program in March unless Congress acts.

“I can tell you, speaking for the Republican Party, we would love to do DACA,” Trump said Monday.

He then reiterated his demands in exchange for a DACA solution: funding for a border wall, restricting family-based immigration preference, and eliminating the diversity visa lottery. Trump has proposed an eventual path to citizenship for 1.8 million Dreamers, including those who did not sign up for DACA, but Democrats and some Republicans have balked at his call to overhaul and restrict legal immigration.

Democrats forced a brief government shutdown last month over DACA, supporting a continuing resolution only after Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., affirmed his intent to allow a debate on the issue if no agreement was reached before February 8.

An open-ended debate began Monday with members of both parties free to make their case and propose amendments. Unlike most Senate debates in recent years, there is no legislation supported by the majority party that leadership is trying to pass, and any measure that can secure 60 votes could end up in the final bill.

“Whoever gets to 60 wins,” McConnell said at a press conference last week.

This process is closer to regular order than the secretive crafting of health care and tax reform legislation last year, but according to Richard Arenberg, who spent three decades in senior staff positions on Capitol Hill and co-authored “Defending the Filibuster: Soul of the Senate,” the majority embarking on this debate with open amendments and no specific desired outcome is unusual. It may work, though.

“It could break down completely in partisan rancor, but it’s entirely possible that the Senate can fashion a bill which will get 60 votes,” said Arenberg, a visiting lecturer at Brown University.

Among the options that are expected to come into play during the Senate debate:

  • Durbin-Graham: A bipartisan group of six senators led by Sens. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) and Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) pitched a deal to Trump last month that would grant citizenship to Dreamers, offer some border wall funding, and tweak the extended family-based and diversity preferences in legal immigration without eliminating them outright. Trump emphatically rejected that offer.
  • McCain-Coons: A proposal offered last week by Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Chris Coons (D-Del.) would provide legal status for Dreamers and tougher border security, but it would not immediately authorize funding for the border wall. It also would not address Trump’s legal immigration priorities.
  • Secure and Succeed: Seven Republican senators, including Sens. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) and John Cornyn (R-Texas), introduced the Secure and Succeed Act late Sunday, legislation that would fulfill all of Trump’s demands. It would not cut legal immigration immediately, however, because it would first use the reduction in extended family and diversity visas to clear out a backlog of 4 to 5 million applicants over the course of several years.
  • Dream Act: Democrats are expected to reintroduce the Dream Act, which has floundered in Congress since the George W. Bush administration. It would create a path to citizenship for millions of undocumented immigrants brought to the country as children, but it does nothing about border security or legal immigration policies.

Also, about two dozen senators who brokered a compromise to reopen the government last month have sought common ground on immigration, but one leader of the self-described Common Sense Caucus, Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, is unsure if they can reach a consensus despite nearly daily meetings.

Despite the atypically open debate that McConnell has promised, some supporters of Dreamers and proponents of stricter immigration controls are already pessimistic about how it will end.

“I don’t think anybody knows what is going to come out of this,” said Ira Mehlman, media director for the Federation for American Immigration Reform, which opposes citizenship for Dreamers.

Mehlman believes Republicans squandered the political advantage they had after the shutdown last month, preemptively folding a strong hand against Democrats who staked their agenda on “amnesty for illegal aliens.”

“This was an opportunity to actually get something of benefit to the American people,” he said. “Instead it looks like they’re simply going to roll the dice and see what happens.”

Immigrant advocates fear the human lives at stake will be lost in the political drama.

“We should not be engaged in a ‘Hunger Games’-like debate in Congress,” said Andrea Guerrero, co-chair of the Southern Borders Communities Coalition, on a conference call with reporters Monday.

However, Frank Sharry, executive director of America’s Voice, is “confident and optimistic” that bipartisan support exists for a compromise that balances safety for Dreamers with border security, at least in the Senate.

“We believe that when push comes to shove…you’ll see a surprising number of Republicans who will join with Democrats on something like this,” he said.

President Trump has often driven a hard line in public comments on immigration, but behind the scenes, officials are reportedly already signaling some flexibility to lawmakers and activists.

According to the Los Angeles Times, Chief of Staff John Kelly and Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen told Latino Republicans last week that the White House would support keeping legal immigration levels steady. If the diversity lottery and extended family migration are halted and the same number of visas are instead used for Dreamers and the millions of relatives of citizens who have already applied for entry, it would take 13 years to sift through them all.

At that point, the number of legal immigrants admitted would begin to drop by hundreds of thousands per year unless Congress acts in the interim to expand visa categories.

Mehlman is skeptical that Washington will make it 13 years without a president and Congress coming into power who support broadening legal immigration.

“The lobbying to start putting back provisions for this group or that group, if it hasn’t started already, it’ll start the day the president signs the bill,” he said.

For any relatively moderate proposal, getting support of a supermajority in the Senate would be the easy part. House Speaker Paul Ryan has only guaranteed a vote on immigration reform legislation that President Trump supports, and Trump has already turned down two plans that have strong prospects for passage in the Senate.

“A bill which passes the Senate will something like 70 votes would have great leverage,” Arenberg said. “But it may not be enough.”

Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi held the House floor for eight hours last week demanding an assurance from Ryan that he will allow an open debate on immigration. She did not get one.

One House immigration reform proposal, spearheaded by Rep. Bob Goodlatte, R-Va., has been championed by conservatives who claim it represents a fair compromise. It offers Dreamers renewable work permits without an expedited path to citizenship, eliminates chain migration, and replaces the diversity lottery with a merit-based system.

Another plan, authored by Reps. Will Hurd (R-Texas) and Pete Aguilar (D-Calif.), has bipartisan support from dozens of members. It would allow Dreamers to apply for citizenship after a period of conditional residency, increase the number of immigration judges and attorneys, and direct DHS to take control of the border using physical barriers, technology, and other tools.

Pro-immigration activists told reporters Monday that they oppose any cuts to family-based immigration and they view the White House framework as ageist, elitist, racist, and unsupported by facts.

“The White House proposal is dead on arrival in the Senate,” Sharry said.

Avideh Moussavian, senior policy attorney at the National Immigration Law Center, accused Trump of endangering Dreamers to advance a white nationalist agenda and called the Secure and Succeed Act “Trump’s ransom note in bill form.”

“Their vision is nothing short of white supremacy,” said Greisa Martinez Rosas, a DACA recipient and advocacy director for United We Dream.

As the immigration debate kicks into high gear on Capitol Hill, both sides worry about where the president will ultimately come down on the issue.

“The question of what President Trump will sign or reject is virtually impossible to decipher,” Arenberg said. “He has reversed himself, sometimes in the same day.”

Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Ore., told Sinclair last week that Democrats want to deal with “Tuesday Trump,” the President Trump who held a bipartisan meeting on immigration on a Tuesday last month and promised to sign any bill Congress passes. When Durbin and Graham went to him with their plan two days later, he immediately rejected it.

“By then he had become ‘Thursday Trump,’” Merkley said, “the Trump who wants to keep immigration alive as a campaign topic going into November, who wants to increase division and hate in the country, who wants to basically be pulled around by the nose by Breitbart News.”

Mehlman cited the L.A. Times report and the fact that Trump’s framework would offer citizenship to 1 million young immigrants who did not sign up for DACA as proof that the White House is already backing down from its ultimatum.

“I wouldn’t even call it flexibility,” he said. “They’ve just surrendered a lot of their original position.”

Whatever the impact of this week’s debate on the future of Dreamers, experts and advocates agree that its political effects will likely be felt through November’s midterm elections and beyond.

“We had a government shutdown over this,” Mehlman said. “This seems to be the make-or-break issue for both parties right now.”

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