WASHINGTON — For 16 years, advocates for legalizing young immigrants brought here illegally by their parents have tried to pass legislation to shield them from deportation. The bill was called the Dream Act, and in Congresses Democratic and Republican, and in the Bush and Obama administrations, whether by stand-alone bill or comprehensive immigration legislation, it failed again and again.
Now, with 800,000 lives in the balance and a fiercely anti-immigration current running through the Republican Party, lawmakers are being asked to try again — with a six-month deadline to boot. The prospects for success after more than a decade of false starts would already be daunting, but President Donald Trump may have made the odds even longer after he promised voters last year that Republicans would take a hard line on immigration, then punted the issue to Congress.
His invitation to lawmakers Tuesday to “do something and do it right” for the so-called “Dreamers” will run into the headwinds of his own politics. On the other hand, lawmakers who for 16 years have been unwilling to grant legal status to a sympathetic group of unauthorized immigrants may find that taking their legal status away is even harder than conferring it.
“I’m hoping that this is a moment where we are forced to finally do something,” said Sen. Richard J. Durbin, D-Ill., an original co-author of the Dream Act — the letters stand for Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors. “We want to call this bill for a vote on the floor of the House and the floor of the Senate. I am hoping that we will have enough votes to pass it.”
Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, said she believed there is “widespread bipartisan support for legislation that would provide some measure of protection to children who are brought to this country through no decision of their own.”
Before there was DACA — Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals — there was Durbin’s DREAM. In 2007, a version of the measure won the support of a majority of senators but fell victim to a bipartisan filibuster that included eight Democrats. Three years later, the bill passed the House but again did not get through the Senate.
And in 2013, language allowing “Dreamers” to stay in this country and work or attend school was included in a broader immigration package that passed the Senate with 68 votes — then failed in the House.
Frustrated after years of failings, President Barack Obama signed DACA as a temporary order in the hopes that Congress would eventually pass the Dream Act and broader immigration changes. But with Republicans in control of both chambers of Congress, the Dream Act stalled once again.
The politics have clearly shifted on the issue — for both parties. With Trump scheduled to visit her state Wednesday, Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D., who is facing a tough re-election bid, posted a lengthy statement on her Facebook page in which she echoed Obama’s assertion Tuesday that ending the program was “cruel.”
Some Republicans have softened as well. Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, R-Wash., who leads the House Republican Conference, said in a statement that while she has long said she did not agree with the way Obama enacted his program, Congress “must protect” those currently shielded from deportation.
She added, “That principle is fundamental for me.”
But hard-liners in the Republican conference remain unbowed. Rep. Steve King of Iowa, one of the fiercest voices in his party against illegal immigration, tweeted that delaying an end to DACA so Republican leadership “can push Amnesty is Republican suicide.”
The Dream Act’s history is tortured. In 2001, a concerned guidance counselor for a frightened young woman whose family immigrated from South Korea reached out to Durbin for help. The young woman, Tereza Lee, was a pianist who was hoping to apply to top ranked music schools, but the law said she would have to leave the United States for 10 years and apply for re-entry. To help Lee, Durbin introduced the DREAM Act.
Democrats had a hand in the legislation’s historical futility. For years, they used the DREAM Act as a bargaining chip to push for broader immigration legislation, hoping a sympathetic group of young immigrants could help win a pathway to citizenship for the far broader pool of 12 million unauthorized immigrants. Now, most Democrats say there is no time for comprehensive immigration changes.
But Republican leaders indicated that they will need sweeteners, perhaps funding for a border wall or other measures to bolster border security.
“The process of taking care of the kids will be a negotiated process,” said Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., who appeared with Durbin on Tuesday at a news conference to call for bipartisan action. “There are a lot of people who believe that a good marriage would be border security and DREAM Act.”
Both Graham and Durbin made clear they could support such a marriage — albeit reluctantly in the case of Durbin — but negotiations look inevitable. Others agreed.
“I think it’s an opportunity for us to deal with a myriad other issues that we need to deal with, with a broken immigration system,” said Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn. Among those issues, he said, are border security, efforts by immigrants to overstay their visa and the so-called “E-Verify” system for employers to certify that their workers are in this country legally.
Sen. John Cornyn of Texas, the No. 2 Republican, was definitive: “I think what President Trump did is appropriate, which is to kick it to Congress, and so we will take that up,” he said. “But there’s no way that it will stand alone.”
In the House, Republican moderates say they are willing to work with Democrats to enshrine the program in legislation — and to force Republican leaders to abandon their customary strategy of only passing bills with overwhelming Republican support — a “majority of the majority.”
“I believe the votes are there to pass some kind of a DACA program in the House,” said Rep. Charlie Dent, R-Pa., who co-chairs the so-called Tuesday Group of House moderates. “I’m not saying a majority of the majority, but there are 218 votes.”
Rep. Mike Coffman, R-Colo., who represents a narrowly divided, heavily Latino district, said Monday that he planned to push a legislative maneuver to get a vote on a temporary extension of DACA that he wrote with Rep. Luis V. Gutiérrez, D-Ill. The so-called discharge petition for the Bridge Act would force Republican leaders to bring the bill to the floor if it has 218 signatures.
“Democrats have to decide, OK, do we allow the deportation of these young people because we don’t like a Republican taking leadership on this issue? Or, do we go with a Republican-led initiative?” said Coffman, a top target for Democrats in next year’s midterm elections.
Gutiérrez weighed in for Coffman’s efforts. “I don’t care who gets the credit. There are 800,000 kids’ futures at stake,” Gutierrez said. “The only consideration we have is how do we legislatively fix this problem.”
It remains unclear if Rep. Nancy Pelosi of California, the House Democratic leader, would back the Bridge Act, which would extend DACA for three years, and rally others to do the same.
But she has requested a meeting with House Speaker Paul Ryan, who has the power to bring the DREAM Act to a vote at any time and who said Tuesday he hoped to find consensus to ensure “that those who have done nothing wrong can still contribute as a valued part of this great country.