The U.S. Senate rejected multiple attempts at immigration reform legislation, suggesting it is unlikely Congress can reach a deal this year that tightens up the nation’s immigration system and also clarifies the future for those holding legal status under the expiring DACA program.
President Trump announced last year that the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, program would expire in March 2018. DACA is the 2012 initiative taken by President Obama to grant legal status to people in the U.S. who were brought here illegally as children. Roughly 700,000 enrolled in DACA.
In announcing the end of DACA, President Trump made it clear he wanted Congress to address the issue through legislation and use the opportunity to make changes in immigration law such as ending the visa lottery and significantly reducing chain migration, by which family members can be sponsored by new citizens to come to the U.S.
Democrats want nothing to do with that approach, insisting only a “clean” DACA fix of simply granting legal status and a pathway to citizenship is acceptable.
In January, Democrats ended a brief government shutdown after Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell promised to allow debate on the issue in the weeks to come. That promise was kept last week, but no bill was able to get the 60 votes needed to end debate and proceed to a final vote.
There is little likelihood that stalemate will be broken anytime soon.
“It’s unclear what will happen now, probably not much,” said Steven Camarota, director of research at the Center for Immigration Studies.
Only 39 senators voted for the bill most closely resembling President Trump’s wish list. He wants a pathway to citizenship for 1.8 million people, which includes DACA recipients and those who qualify but never enrolled. Trump would also scrap the visa lottery and limit the chain migration policy to spouses and minor children.
He also wants $25 billion to secure the border and begin constructing major portions of a border wall.
The highly-touted “bipartisan” bill sponsored by Republicans Susan Collins, R-Maine, and Mike Rounds, R-S.D., and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., fell six votes short of the 60-vote threshold. It kept the 1.8 million number in place as well as $25 billion in border security.
However, Camarota says it fell far short in reforming the legal immigration system.
“It did not have any ending or phasing out of the chain migration categories. And it had other things, like how priorities on enforcement would move forward and it seemed it was going to make it more difficult to enforce the law in some other areas. So while the border might be more secure, the interior might be less secure,” said Camarota.
So why did the bill Camarota considers weaker than the Trump-backed measure get 15 more votes in a GOP-controlled Senate? Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, says many in his party are now to the left of Barack Obama on immigration, at least compared to the parameters Obama imposed on DACA.
Camarota sees Cruz as hyperbolic in that comparison given that Obama wanted legal status and a pathway to citizenship for 10-11 million people in the U.S. illegally. But he says Cruz does bring up an important point.
“His basic insight is not ridiculous. If you’re the party of enforcement against amnesty, the president was agreeing to a pretty generous amnesty of 1.8 million.
“I think the reason he did that, and this is the way politics works and you have to decide what you think of it. He thought it was the only way he could get the things that he wanted, like the reform of the legal immigration system and the wall. The hope was that this trade-off would go through, but some of his own party and the Democrats didn’t want it,” said Camarota.
And what do the Democrats want?
“The Democrats are pretty unified that they want to keep immigration (numbers) as high as possible, letting the most number of people in and increase it. (They want) as expansive an amnesty as possible and tend to not want to spend more on enforcement. There are a lot of Republicans who tend to support that agenda,” said Camarota.
While the Center for Immigration Studies likes Trump’s efforts to limit chain migration, Camarota says the group has major misgivings about the president’s willingness to place the so-called Dreamers on a path to citizenship.
“One of the reasons you want to reform the chain migration system or give citizenship to DACA members is that pretty quickly it means they might be able to sponsor their parents, and the parents are the ones who brought them here.
“The whole idea of a DACA amnesty was that we’ll do this for people who aren’t to blame, but eventually it means amnesty for everyone who is to blame unless you end those categories. Don’t allow people to sponsor their parents to come in or don’t give citizenship to the DACA recipents,” said Camarota.
With just two weeks until DACA is rescinded, Camarota says the courts may end up having a critical say in how this debate plays out.
“Although the DACA program is ending so people will not be able to renew, more than one judge as ruled – crazy as it may sound – that although it was a discretionary policy and that’s how it was sold, that the administration can’t end the program,” said Camarota.
“If, which seems likely, the administration can overcome the ridiculous judicial activism that says they can’t end the program, then it would put more pressure on Democrats and then we might see some meaningful reform,” said Camarota.