Trump’s ‘Dreamer’ Proposal Can’t Thread Legislative Needle

New immigration framework faces opposition from all sides

Conservative Republicans in the House support a bill by Judiciary Chairman Robert W. Goodlatte that includes hawkish policies omitted from the White House framework. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
Conservative Republicans in the House support a bill by Judiciary Chairman Robert W. Goodlatte that includes hawkish policies omitted from the White House framework. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
Posted January 29, 2018 at 5:03am

Near universal dismissal of President Donald Trump’s framework for legislation that would grant a pathway to citizenship for 1.8 million “Dreamers” underscores the difficult task for lawmakers racing to strike a deal that has eluded Congress for close to two decades.

Trump’s proposal, which calls for $25 billion to build a U.S.-Mexico border wall and limits on so-called chain migration, isn’t likely to fly in the Senate or the House, albeit for different reasons.

Senate Democrats, who can filibuster any legislation requiring 60 votes to advance, won’t support it because they say it uses Dreamers as a bargaining chip to enact a laundry list of GOP immigration priorities.

“The White House claims to be compromising because the president now agrees with the overwhelming majority of Americans that Dreamers should have a pathway to citizenship,” Minority Whip Richard J. Durbin of Illinois said in a news release Thursday. “But his plan would put the administration’s entire hard-line immigration agenda … on the backs of these young people.”

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Hard-liners weren’t happy with Trump’s framework either, raising questions as to whether it would pass the more conservative House, where conservative Republicans support a bill by Judiciary Chairman Robert W. Goodlatte of Virginia that includes hawkish policies omitted from the White House framework.

The idea that Trump is supporting citizenship for any Dreamers, let alone double the number enrolled in the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program he wants to eliminate, known as DACA, dismayed immigration hawks.

“The White House has botched the DACA issue, cutting Bob Goodlatte’s House bill off at the knees and making it more likely that either there will be no bill at all or that any final bill the president signs, which is guaranteed to be even weaker than this, will fatally demoralize Republican voters,” wrote Mark Krikorian, executive director of the restrictionist Center for Immigration Studies, in a blog post Friday.

The problem is that neither the Goodlatte bill nor Trump’s framework has a strong chance of passing the Senate. And any measure capable of garnering support from nine Senate Democrats — even moderates — faces an uphill battle in the House.

Widespread concerns

Since the current debate over a permanent solution for DACA recipients began in September, lawmakers from both parties have urged the White House and their colleagues to keep negotiations narrow. The White House successfully added chain migration and the diversity visa lottery program to discussions that began with DACA and border security, leading to the four-pillar proposal outlined Thursday.

While the White House considers its pitch to be well within bounds, Democrats are likely to consider a number of provisions outside the  agreed-upon, four-pillar framework. 

For instance, a move that would “deter illegal entry by ending dangerous statutorily-imposed catch-and-release [requirements]” is raising alarms among humanitarian groups that argue the policy is a backdoor ban on asylum-seeking Central American children who cannot be quickly deported, hundreds of thousands of whom have turned themselves in at the southern border in recent years.

“No deal on immigration should trade the lives of one group of vulnerable individuals for another,” said Katharina Obser, a policy adviser at the Women’s Refugee Commission, on a conference call with reporters. “Children and adults escaping violence are not exploiting so-called loopholes, nor do they pose a threat to border security.”

And ending the diversity visa lottery is a no-go for the Congressional Black Caucus, a key group of House Democrats that wants to keep the program because a sizable portion of the 50,000 visas issued each year tend to benefit African immigrants. Trump has said the lottery should end for national security, but black lawmakers say his reported vulgar comments about Haiti and African nations during an Oval Office meeting earlier this month undercut his argument.

Trump also risks losing the support of fiscal conservatives wary of the border wall’s high price tag. Losing the support of Sens. Rand Paul of Kentucky and Mike Lee of Utah, for example, would further endanger the chance of legislation passing the Senate.

“I remain a fiscal conservative, even on the wall, so I’m not excited about spending $20, $30, $40 billion on a wall,” Paul said in a CNN interview last Wednesday. “I’m still a believer that we don’t have money to spend.”

What comes next?

When White House officials briefed reporters on the proposal Thursday night, they were a few days ahead of schedule.

But progress already appeared stalled by Friday after Ben Marter, a spokesman for Durbin, claimed on Twitter that the White House had canceled a Monday briefing on the proposal with Durbin, Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn, House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy and House Minority Whip Steny H. Hoyer.

“Given the rollout yesterday I think we are holding for now,” the White House said, according to Marter’s tweet.

Regardless, Senate negotiators are expected to push forward. Members of a bipartisan group calling itself the “Common Sense Coalition” that met at the Capitol on Friday say they will begin submitting proposals to Cornyn and Durbin, who are taking the lead on writing legislation aimed at scoring a floor vote before Feb. 8, when current government funding expires.

If Cornyn and Durbin don’t reach an agreement by then, Majority Leader Mitch McConnell says he’ll begin an open floor debate on immigration.

In the House, conservatives will continue to lean on Speaker Paul D. Ryan to hold a vote on the Goodlatte bill, which gained momentum last week when it won the endorsement of the 150-member Republican Study Committee.