Washington (CNN)As the debate over the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program goes down to the wire, the parents of the young undocumented immigrants affected -- not the recipients themselves -- may be the trickiest flashpoint.
DACA parents become flashpoint in negotiations
Negotiations on a bipartisan Senate plan have been thorny on the issue of what to do about the parents, according to sources familiar with the group's discussions, and comments from lawmakers. And threading the needle could be the difference on whether it can get 60 votes.
"If you deal with the parents now, you lose a lot of Republicans. If you try to do the breaking chain migration now, you lose a lot of Democrats," South Carolina's Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham said of the talks. "We're going to say that parents can't be sponsored by the Dream Act child they brought in illegally."
According to a draft of the bipartisan deal obtained by CNN, the compromise would prevent parents from being sponsored for citizenship by their children if the children received citizenship through the pathway created by the bill or if the parents brought them to the US illegally. That leaves Democrats grappling with the idea that they may have to trade protections for DACA immigrants for a penalty for their parents, who brought them to the US illegally.
"I don't like that part," Hawaii's Democratic Sen. Mazie Hirono said, leaving a meeting of Democrats where they were briefed on the bill, though she indicated she may be able to accept it as a compromise.
At issue are laws that allow US citizens to sponsor family members for eventual citizenship, including parents.
The Trump administration and allies have seized on the issue of family-based migration as a wedge, arguing that all forms of family sponsorship except spouses and minor children should be cut.
But even Republican moderates who don't support that position are concerned about the implications for parents of recipients of DACA.
If eligible young immigrants are granted a path to becoming citizens in roughly a decade, as per most proposals, that could allow them to sponsor their parents down the road -- though experts say it's not that simple.
Conservatives object to the notion that parents who came here illegally could eventually be rewarded with citizenship.
In a call with reporters on Wednesday, a White House official said that without blocking parental sponsorship for people who came to the US illegally with their children, a deal "would massively incentivize" more illegal immigration and would create a "perverse incentive of adult illegal immigrants to (not) enter illegally without their children."
How to do it is tricky. Lawmakers agree it's impossible to create a class of citizen that has different rights than others, so that leaves either cutting parental sponsorship for all citizens, a massive cut to current legal immigration or specifically addressing parents of DACA immigrants.
Advocates and experts point out that it's false to claim that a DACA pathway would quickly, or even easily, allow parents to get citizenship.
The law already requires that individuals who came to the US illegally and have been here without status for more than a year -- statistically a substantial majority of DACA parents -- are required to return to their home countries for at least 10 years before they can apply for green cards. Nothing in proposed legislation would remove that requirement, which would come after a 10- to 12-year waiting period for the children.
After that, all of those individuals would still have to meet other requirements on all green card applicants, including clean criminal records and being able to prove they could support themselves once here. Advanced age can be used as a factor to reject immigrants on the latter grounds.
William Stock, a partner at Klasko Immigration Law Partners and the former president of the American Immigration Lawyers Association, said "nearly all" DACA parents would have trouble becoming citizens even with a bill because of the 10-year penalty.
"If they didn't have to deal with the 10-year bar, they would have done it already," Stock said. "They wouldn't be undocumented, because they could have found some way (to legalize their status.)"