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Opinion: On DACA, Not All Bitter Pills Are Poison

To break the stalemate, lawmakers from both parties will need to swallow proposals they don’t like

Heather Piña Ledezma, 6, attends a news conference in the Capitol in December 2014 with Democratic senators and families impacted by the DACA program. Heather’s mother, Madai, is from Mexico, but Heather was born in Annapolis. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Heather Piña Ledezma, 6, attends a news conference in the Capitol in December 2014 with Democratic senators and families impacted by the DACA program. Heather’s mother, Madai, is from Mexico, but Heather was born in Annapolis. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

After months of talks, Congress is still stuck in the throes of an immigration debate it didn’t want but now needs to settle. And after months of signaling — and then retracting — support for various proposals, President Donald Trump finally laid out a clear, one-page summary of a deal he would accept on permanent protections for DACA recipients and “Dreamers.”

Both Republicans and Democrats had hoped the plan would help move things forward. Instead, it managed to anger both sides quickly and equally. That reaction is often the sign of a viable compromise, but this plan instead joined nearly every other immigration proposal — from hard-right enforcement-heavy bills, to progressive attempts at a clean DREAM Act, to the bipartisan Gang of Six proposal — as a nonstarter.

The reality is if every initial proposal is declared a nonstarter, Congress will never start the negotiating process, and we will never solve this problem.

If, as expected, a version of Trump’s proposal is introduced in the Senate for consideration this week and the amendment process is fair and open, rather than pillory it as imperfect, both sides should embrace it for what it is — a place to start the conversation and seek compromise.

Watch: DACA Protesters Sit on Senate Steps, Get Arrested

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Both sides, to be fair, have substantial criticisms of the president’s framework. Immigration restrictionists and anti-amnesty groups oppose the path to citizenship for 1.8 million Dreamers and what they see as a too-slow elimination of family-based green cards. Pro-immigration groups and many progressives decry the $25 billion price tag for a so-called border wall system, the end of those family-sponsored visas that brought many Americans’ ancestors to this country, and further interior enforcement.

This proposal is clearly harder for Democrats and immigration advocates to swallow. It is heavily weighted toward enforcement, and would cut legal immigration by up to 44 percent, according to one analysis, to the serious detriment of our economy. Despite a proposal that tilts in their direction, some Republicans simply cannot abide the idea of granting individuals who are American in every way but papers the citizenship they repeatedly demonstrate by loudly petitioning the government to let them stay in the only country most of them have ever known.

We’ve reached a point in the immigration debate where the lack of trust on all sides is so severe that nothing is ever seen as a good faith effort at compromise. Every hard-to-swallow proposal has become a poison pill. Today, the fear of making a bad deal is preventing attempts at any deal. That’s a recipe for inaction, not compromise.

Even the president must recognize he may not get everything he wants at the end of this process and be willing to accept less funding for the border wall or to put off legal immigration changes for another day, if those proposals can’t get majority votes in Congress.

Sure, this would all be easier if the deal on the table were narrower — just a permanent DACA fix and funding for border security. It is simply not realistic to think this plan can or should drastically reshape the legal immigration system or make major changes to interior enforcement. But the president has already backed away from some of the more extreme positions on the right. By engaging in the debate, perhaps Democrats can secure other changes that make it more palatable to them and their constituents.

The alternative is, well, letting the DREAM die. And the nation will lose yet another chance — this one so close you can reach out and touch it — to address a significant immigration issue.

Some on both sides will say, “Hold out! The politics on this will shift in our favor and we can cut a better deal later.” That’s exactly what many on the left thought would happen after the 2016 election, or 2012, or 2008. And many on the right expected Republican majorities in Congress and Trump in the White House to usher in a wave of pure enforcement. But it hasn’t worked out that way either. The golden age of immigration politics is never just around the corner.

Meanwhile, immigrants continue to wait in limbo, subject to tougher enforcement and the possibility of deportation, and we are no closer to resolving the issue. We must stop putting a solution for Dreamers just out of reach, while promising the next election will bring change.

The time for brinksmanship in this debate is clearly over. It’s time to reach a deal. Yes, all sides must swallow some bitter pills. But doing nothing would be the bitterest pill of all.

Theresa Cardinal Brown is the director of immigration and cross-border policy at the Bipartisan Policy Center and served in the Department of Homeland Security during the George W. Bush and Obama administrations.

The Bipartisan Policy Center is a D.C.-based think tank that actively promotes bipartisanship. BPC works to address the key challenges facing the nation through policy solutions that are the product of informed deliberations by former elected and appointed officials, business and labor leaders, and academics and advocates from both ends of the political spectrum. BPC is currently focused on health, energy, national security, the economy, financial regulatory reform, housing, immigration, infrastructure, and governance. Follow BPC on Twitter or Facebook.

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