WASHINGTON — If President Trump gives Congress six months to find a legislative fix for the controversial program that now shields nearly 800,000 young undocumented immigrants from deportation, the focus will shift to a politically charged fight on Capitol Hill where agreement on anything — especially on the radioactive issue of immigration — remains elusive.
The Trump administration is expected to announce the fate of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals Program — known as DACA — Tuesday as the president was considering kicking the Obama administration program to lawmakers rather than declaring an immediate end to the protections.
While the White House has cautioned that no final decision on DACA had been made, a possible six-month reprieve would only add to an already-heavy legislative calendar. Congress is set to begin discussions on an overhaul of the tax system, while a vote looms on raising the federal debt limit.
Lawmakers who return to Washington Tuesday after their August recess also must decide how to structure a massive relief package to aid victims of Hurricane Harvey, which swamped much of the Texas Gulf region.
Frank Sharry, executive director of America’s Voice, a group that advocates for immigrants, said legislators have never been able to pass legislation to assist young immigrants, also known as “dreamers,” even in more favorable political environments. And he saw no reason to believe that the current Congress, which has been unable to coalesce around a repeal of the Affordable Care Act, could somehow come together to pass any version of the DREAM Act.
“From a political point of view, a decision to kill DACA would be a blunder of historic proportions,” Sharry said. “It will overwhelm (Congress’) fall agenda. There will be a lot of pressure on Republicans to clean up the mess made by the administration.”
Congress has struggled — unsuccessfully — for nearly 20 years to deal with the plight of young immigrants brought to the country by their parents.
In 2010, a proposal that would have provided a path to citizenship for young illegals on the condition that they enrolled in college or joined the military, died in the Senate after a formidable campaign waged by advocates.
The chief Senate sponsor of that proposal, Sen. Richard Durbin, D-Ill., joined with Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., earlier this summer to offer a new version, in an attempt to head off a full repeal of the protections provided by President Barack Obama in 2012.
Among the requirements under the Durbin-Graham plan: candidates for permanent residency and eventual citizenship would have had to be in the United States for four years by the date the legislation was enacted; earn a high school diploma or GED; pursue higher education, spend two years in the military; pass a background check; show proficiency in English and U.S. history; and have not committed a felony nor posed a threat to the country.
“If President Trump chooses to cancel the DACA program and give Congress six months to find a legislative solution, I will be supportive of such a position,” Graham said. “I have always believed DACA was a presidential overreach. However, I equally understand the plight of the Dream Act kids who — for all practical purposes — know no country other than America.
“If President Trump makes this decision, we will work to find a legislative solution to their dilemma,” the senator said.
Rep. Carlos Curbelo, R-Fla., also has revived a proposal first offered in 2010. The measure would in part provide a path to citizenship for child immigrants who entered the country illegally prior to Jan. 1, 2012, and were 16 years old or younger.
While Trump’s successful campaign for the White House centered on a hard line against illegal immigration, he has acknowledged deep conflicts with the plight of young immigrants.
In an April interview with the Associated Press, he suggested that the so-called Dreamers could “rest easy.”
But Trump has faced mounting pressure on the matter from all fronts.
Conservative attorneys general from 10 states have threatened to file suit to end the program if the president doesn’t act by Tuesday.
Meanwhile, chief executives from some of the nation’s largest companies, including Apple, Facebook and Amazon, urged Trump late last week to save the program.
“Dreamers are vital to the future of our companies and our economy,” the executives said in an open letter to the president. “With them, we grow and create jobs. They are part of why we will continue to have a global competitive advantage.”
House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wisc., also has counseled against ending the program, urging the president to allow Congress to find a solution. Sen. James Lankford, R-Okla., also called for Trump to exercise compassion.
“It is right for there to be consequences for those who intentionally entered this country illegally,” Lankford said. “However, we as Americans do not hold children legally accountable for the actions of their parents.”
But members of Ryan’s own caucus offered a measure of how difficult it may be to achieve a legislative fix, especially among Trump’s hard-line conservative base.
“Ending DACA now gives chance 2 restore Rule of Law,” Rep. Steve King, R-Iowa, said in a weekend tweet. “Delaying so R Leadership can push Amnesty is Republican suicide.”
Rep. Joaquin Castro, D-Texas, said: “For all the members of Congress over the past 5 years who said DACA should’ve been done ‘legislatively’ here’s your chance. #DefendDACA.”