President Donald Trump has given Congress a nearly impossible task: Save nearly 800,000 young people who were brought to this country illegally as children, and overhaul the rest of the immigration system – all within six months.
Lawmakers are pursuing at least two different, more narrow approaches to keeping the undocumented immigrants, known as Dreamers, in this country legally. Any effort to give them a path to citizenship faces resistance from conservative Republicans.
But Trump made the effort even tougher Tuesday when he said a clean bill to help Dreamers, a political flashpoint for years, would not be enough.
In announcing the end of President Barack Obama’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, program on Tuesday, Trump indicated he won't sign anything that doesn't include other administration priorities on immigration, notably building a U.S.-Mexico border wall and reducing the number of green cards available to legal immigrants.
“We can't take just a one piece fix,” White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said later in the day. “We've got to do an overall immigration reform that's responsible and, frankly, that's lawful.”
If Congress doesn’t act in six months, Trump’s deadline for congressional action before DACA officially ends, some Dreamers could face deportation.
Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., said Tuesday that Congress shouldn’t waste its time on legislation that Trump won’t sign.
“It is important that the White House clearly outline what kind of legislation the president is willing to sign,” Rubio said in a statement.
Still, legislative efforts were proceeding. On Tuesday afternoon, Sens. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., and Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., indicated they would push their bipartisan bill to codify DACA into law, despite uncertainty about whether Trump would sign it.
The lawmakers said they believed the so-called “Dream Act” should be passed this month as a “down payment” on more comprehensive immigration overhaul legislation to be negotiated at a later date.
Graham said with Dreamers’ fate in a delicate balance, “we don’t have (the) luxury” of time to wrap the Dream Act into a larger, comprehensive bill. He should know: He and his colleagues spent months trying to advance comprehensive immigration overhaul legislation in 2013, managing to pass it in the Senate. It went nowhere in the House thanks to a GOP jittery over upsetting its base.
Durbin said that back when the Senate passed that bill, “I swallowed hard” on compromises such as stricter border enforcement provisions. He suggested would be ready to do the same now, but Dreamers need to be protected first.
Democrats are lining up behind the new Graham-Durbin bill. Some Republicans support the Dream Act, including Miami Republican Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, who has cosponsored a companion version of Durbin and Graham’s bill in the House of Representatives.
Graham added that Trump could significantly speed up the process of passing a DACA fix and comprehensive immigration legislation if he got involved in the process.
The 2017 Dream Act would let Dreamers obtain permanent residency in the United States, and eventually citizenship, if they meet certain criteria. They must either graduate high school or obtain a GED, and choose to pursue one of the following: Higher education, three years in the workforce or military service. All applicants must pass security and law enforcement background checks and pay an application fee, plus demonstrate proficiency in the English language. They also cannot be felons or violent criminals.
Elsewhere, Miami Republican Rep. Carlos Curbelo is pushing an alternative plan that could garner additional Republican votes – and Trump’s signature.
Curbelo’s plan would provide a path to citizenship for Dreamers who entered illegally before Jan. 1, 2012 and were 16 years old or younger when they entered. It has stricter requirements for gaining citizenship than the Dream Act.
The bill, dubbed the “Recognizing America’s Children Act” would offer Dreamers a five-year conditional status if they are high school graduates without a criminal record. Dreamers could apply for permanent residency and eventually citizenship if they don’t rely on public assistance during their conditional status and pursue higher education, military service or employment in the five year period.
The Migration Policy Institute, a nonpartisan think tank, estimated that Curbelo’s bill would offer about 1 million people conditional legal status immediately while Durbin and Graham’s Dream Act would protect about 1.8 million people.
Curbelo’s bill, unlike the Dream Act, has not won any Democratic support but is gaining momentum among Republicans.
Last week, Sen. Thom Tillis, R-N.C., a Trump supporter, announced that he will offer a bill identical to Curbelo’s in the Senate.
Florida Gov. Rick Scott, who chairs a pro-Trump political fundraising group, said Friday he supports Curbelo and Tillis’ bills.
Getting Democrats on board could be a challenge.
Curbelo’s office said he had “productive conversations” with Democrats, including Rep. Luis Gutiérrez, D-Ill., who authored the first version of the Dream Act in 2001.
But Gutiérrez’s office said they haven’t talked to Curbelo about his plan recently.
“Curbelo’s bill really is a product of the Republicans working with each other and hasn’t involved Democrats in plotting and reviewing the strategy, unlike the Dream Act,” said Gutiérrez’s press secretary Douglas Rivlin.
Rivlin said Speaker Paul Ryan will face intense pressure from conservative Republicans who do not want to pass any bill that helps undocumented immigrants, and that putting a bill on the floor without the support from the majority of Republicans will be tough to justify politically.
This is the predicament Ryan’s predecessor, Speaker John Boehner of Ohio, faced in 2013. He ultimately decided it wasn’t worth upsetting his base to bring immigration legislation forward.
Brian Murphy and Patricia Mazzei contributed