President Donald Trump's administration is ending Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals
The President's move leaves open the window for Congress to save it in six months
But Republicans are divided on how best to address immigration
President Donald Trump on Tuesday threw the fate of 800,000 recipients of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program over to Capitol Hill, where Republican leaders and lawmakers will now have to decide where their party stands on immigration once and for all.
Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced that the Trump administration will end with a six-month delay the DACA program that began under for President Barack Obama. The Trump administration will roll back DACA in March in hopes that Congress can find a legislative solution. However, that is not much time to protect young immigrants who were brought to the country illegally as children, but have had an opportunity to live, study and work in the United States without fear of deportation under the program.
Anything Congress comes up with in upcoming months will have to be bipartisan – a tough climb in an era when partisanship has gripped Capitol Hill. Even with Republicans in control of the executive and legislative branches of the federal government, getting big legislation to Trump’s desk appears strenuous – if not at times impossible.
Ultimately, it’s Republicans who are in charge and Republicans who have been dogged by internal schisms on immigration for years now.
Some Republicans, including House Speaker Paul Ryan and Utah Sen. Orrin Hatch, were so concerned about what Congress would be able to accomplish on DACA in a tight timeframe that they urged Trump last week not to end the program at all.
Moderates who want to fix the system
Still, there are already several pieces of legislation in Congress aimed at protecting DACA recipients, some even that are bipartisan. Sens. Lindsey Graham (R-South Carolina) and Dick Durbin (D-Illinois) re-introduced their “DREAM Act” in July and on Tuesday called on Congress to pass such legislation before the end of the month.
And, Rep. CarlosCurbelo (R-Florida) has his own legislation – the “Recognizing America’s Children Act”– which Sen. Thom Tillis (R-North Carolina) is expected to introduce in the Senate on Tuesday.
On one side of the GOP conference, there are moderates who have been working on overhauling the country’s immigration system for years now. Republican Sens. Graham, John McCain of Arizona, Jeff Flake of Arizona and Marco Rubio of Florida joined with Democrats in 2013 on a bill that legalized millions. They have already vowed to do something for DACA recipients.
“President Trump’s decision to eliminate DACA is the wrong approach to immigration policy at a time when both sides of the aisle need to come together to reform our broken immigration system and secure the border,” McCain said in a statement. “I strongly believe that children who were illegally brought into this country through no fault of their own should not be forced to return to a country they do not know.”
Rep. Will Hurd, a Republican congressman who represents that largest swath of the Southern border of any House member in the country, said in a statement that “Congress must provide a permanent, legislative solution for children brought here through no fault of their own.”
But that may not be as easy as it sounds.
Hardliners want DACA gone for good
While there are plenty of Republican members of Congress who are sympathetic to DACA recipients, the right flank of the GOP has easily defeated immigration reform efforts in the past. Republican representatives such as Steve King of Iowa and Louis Gohmert of Texas have built their careers on tough-on-immigration rhetoric, and there are plenty of interest groups such as Numbers USA off the Hill who have demonstrated sway over the GOP.
The Chamber of Commerce, conservative faith leaders, conservative columnists and Republican leaders all backed immigration reform, but in 2014, a Brookings Institute analysis observed that 97% of the Republican House members in the 113th Congress represented majority-white districts.
Today, there is still little political incentive for conservatives from majority-white districts where Trump’s anti-immigrant message resonated to vote for a bill that protects DACA recipients.
Immigration was also a key issue that galvanized conservative base voters to support Trump. On the campaign trail, Trump promised mass deportation, highlighted crimes committed by immigrants and swore he’d unwind DACA to adoring crowds. If anything, Trump only exacerbated his base voters’ fears of immigrants who are in the country illegally.
In Congress, a group of immigration hardliners have become a powerful faction on Capitol Hill. While members of the House Freedom Caucus have some varied positions on immigration, the conservative and sometimes rabble-rousing group has been effective at dictating leadership’s direction on legislative priorities in the past.
What leadership is saying
There has been such trepidation about pursuing immigration legislation in the House that when House Speaker Paul Ryan was elected in 2015, he vowed not to try to pass any immigration bills while Obama was President.
“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,” Ryan said in a statement Tuesday.
For Republicans, Trump’s decision on DACA is an opportunity to redefine an immigration system many have decried as broken for decades. But it’s also potentially another thorn for GOP leaders who have struggled to unite their conferences on key priorities like health care already this year. Tackling immigration could further reveal GOP schisms, not to mention it will take valuable legislative time away from efforts to pursue other top agenda items like tax reform. Already, Congress is gripped with a long to-do list this fall.
Before the end of September, Congress has to raise the debt ceiling, pass a spending bill, agree on a budget, reauthorize the Children’s Health Insurance Program and the country’s flood insurance program, and agree on a supplemental spending package to help those affected in the wake of Hurricane Harvey.
For his part, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell did not criticize Trump but pledged to have his chamber continue working “on securing our border and ensuring a lawful system of immigration that works.”
“President Obama wrongly believed he had the authority to re-write our immigration law,” McConnell said. “Today’s action by President Trump corrects that fundamental mistake.”
If Trump was trying to dodge his own tough decision on DACA, forcing Congress into action only complicates the future of his legislative agenda.
CNN’s Tal Kopan contributed to this report.