Editor’s Note: Raul A. Reyes is an attorney and member of the USA Today board of contributors. Follow him on Twitter @RaulAReyes. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.
There is a rebellion brewing in the House of Representatives. It is led by a group of Republicans who are trying to get enough votes to bring a discharge petition to the floor. It would potentially allow for a debate on immigration and a vote on a legislative fix for the Dreamers. Headed by Rep. Jeff Denham, R-California, this group of lawmakers is reportedly only a few votes away from being able to craft a replacement for the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program.
Given the widespread support for the so-called Dreamers, these developments should be something to get excited about, right? Not really.
What is going on in Congress is just the latest round of political maneuvering around DACA and the Dreamers. It involves a complicated set of competing political interests and behind-the-scenes wrangling. As well-intentioned as the renegade House members might be, they will likely be defeated by their dysfunctional party leadership. There is no joy in being pessimistic about the prospects of action on immigration in Congress. But at this point, it is important to be realistic.
If you are not entirely sure about the current status of DACA, that’s understandable. The fate of the program, created by a 2012 executive order by President Barack Obama to give temporary deportation relief to young people brought illegally to the US as children, has whipsawed back and forth over the last eight months. Pretty much the only thing that has remained constant is that the roughly 800,000 beneficiaries of the program are still facing an uncertain future.
Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced on September 5 that the Trump administration had decided to rescind DACA, and gave Congress six months to preserve it through legislation. Two federal judges ruled against the administration, keeping the program in place past its March wind-down deadline. In April, another federal judge ruled that the program should be reinstated, and gave the Department of Justice 90 days to come up with a legal justification for why it should end. As a backdrop to these legal battles, lawmakers in Congress have tried unsuccessfully to reach a compromise, once even briefly shutting down the government. Still, no DACA deal.
So where are we now? DACA remains in place – though that could change depending on what happens in the courts.
Enter Congressman Denham and several moderate Republicans. With the midterm elections coming up, they do not want to be seen as failing to take action on DACA, especially Denham – whose district is about 44% Hispanic. The problem is that neither House Speaker Paul Ryan nor Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy want an immigration vote to happen.
Ryan has said that he will not allow a vote on any immigration bill that President Trump will not sign. This sentiment is flat-out hypocritical; it never stopped the House from passing numerous measures repealing the Affordable Care Act while Obama was still president, even though there was no chance he would sign them. Just last year, Ryan told a Dreamer at a town hall that she did not have to worry about being deported. What would he tell her if a judge strikes down DACA, or if the Supreme Court finds the plan unconstitutional? If that happened, the Dreamers would be at risk for deportation once their two-year protections began to expire. Unconscionably, Ryan is failing to act, and attempting to block others from crafting a DACA solution as well.
McCarthy is no better. According to press reports, he is worried that allowing a vote on an immigration bill and saving the Dreamers could demoralize the Republican base. Never mind that a majority of Americans believe that DACA should remain in place, and that the Dreamers should be allowed to stay here. A February CNN poll found that 83% of Americans favor continuing the Obama-era program, including 83% of independents and 67% of Republicans.
Even if a discharge petition were to succeed in the House, there is no guarantee that Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell would bring a DACA bill up for a vote in the Senate.
The biggest villain in this saga is the President himself. If by a legislative miracle, a DACA bill reached his desk, he would be very unlikely to sign it. Despite his mixed messages on DACA – he once said he would treat Dreamers “with heart” – the President is resolutely committed to his wall (that Mexico was supposed to pay for), to ending the diversity visa lottery (for people from “—-hole countries”), and to making changes to our family-based immigration system (you know, the one Melania Trump’s parents used to become legal permanent residents).
Let’s not forget that the President has been a wholly unreliable negotiating partner on DACA, rejecting several bipartisan immigration compromises in the past – or that his termination of the plan was arbitrary and unnecessary to begin with. The President’s insistence that legislation that saves DACA be tied to a radical restructuring of our immigration system shows that he is not serious about helping the Dreamers.
So, while it would be wonderful to be hopeful about a DACA bill, there is really no immigration fix on the horizon.
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It is unfortunate that what matters most to the Republican leaders is their small but vocal base, not the broader will of the voters. It is sad that thousands of young immigrants continue to live under a cloud of uncertainty and fear. And it is deeply troubling that legislative solutions can be blocked by the intractable views of a handful of powerful lawmakers. The Dreamers deserve better – and so do all Americans.