Opinion: The ‘Dreamer’ Fight Could End in One of Three Ways

Senate has launched debate, House soon to follow

Supporters of so-called Dreamers, immigrants brought to the United States illegally as children, protest outside the Capitol on Jan. 21. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Supporters of so-called Dreamers, immigrants brought to the United States illegally as children, protest outside the Capitol on Jan. 21. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Posted February 14, 2018 at 5:01am

It began more than 16 years ago with two senators, a Democrat and a Republican, offering heart-tugging stories about young constituents buffeted by immigration laws.

For Utah’s Orrin Hatch, it was the tale of a boy named Danny, who was brought to this country as a six-year-old by his mother who had crossed the border illegally. By the time Danny was 14, he was roaming the streets of Salt Lake City without supervision.

Danny was saved by the owner of a landscaping company who adopted him. The problem: Since Danny had not legally immigrated to America, he could not stay in this country to work or attend school.

For Dick Durbin, it was Tereza Lee, a piano prodigy living in Chicago who couldn’t attend college because of her immigration status. Lee, who was just two years old when her Brazilian parents brought her to this country, faced deportation to a country that she didn’t remember.

These were the original “Dreamers” — and Hatch and Durbin initially supported legislation to grant these child immigrants legal status. While Hatch has long since drifted away, this failed bipartisan legislative initiative gave rise to Barack Obama’s 2012 DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) program.

Now with Obama’s executive order expiring on March 5, the Senate has launched an immigration debate, with the House soon to follow.

Watch: Watch: Pelosi Holds House Floor Seeking DACA Commitment From Ryan

Loading the player...

The question facing both Democrats and Republicans is this: How will the fight over the Dreamers play in November? Despite a mountain of polling data, it is hard to predict how attitudes may shift if DACA recipients begin to be deported or if right-wingers rebel over granting them a path to citizenship.

Scenario: Deadlock Through 2018

Details: The Senate’s adventure in open-ended legislative craftsmanship ends with the fate of most group writing efforts — an ungovernable mess. No proposal to safeguard immigrants covered by DACA can corral a filibuster-proof majority.

Meanwhile, the House narrowly passes Trump’s proposal for coupling protection for DACA recipients with funding for a border wall and severe restrictions on legal immigration. Even that bill almost falls apart on the House floor as nearly 20 Republicans balk at supporting any path to citizenship for the Dreamers.

Faced with a stalemate, both parties resort to the same talking points they were brandishing this week. Democrats attack Republicans for their heartless repudiation of the Dreamers, while the GOP counters by claiming that their opponents crave a political issue more than a solution.

Political complications: Freed from any legal restraints, immigration agents move without compunction to deport Dreamers. The news is filled with heartrending videos of people being arrested leaving college campuses or at the ballpark with their young children.

The deportations undermine the GOP’s already shaky hold on upscale suburbs. But Latino and liberal groups attack Democrat leaders like Chuck Schumer and Nancy Pelosi for not risking a protracted government shutdown to protect the Dreamers.

The 2018 question: Which group is bigger — mutinous affluent Republicans or disheartened Democrats?

Scenario: The Democrats Mostly Cave

Details: Sometime during or even after the Senate debate, Democrats begin to recognize the inescapable truth — it is impossible to protect the Dreamers as long as Paul Ryan holds firm in his loyalty to Trump. The House speaker has said he will not bring a bill to the floor that the president hasn’t blessed in advance.

The Democrats’ problem is that they care far more about the fate of the Dreamers than most Republicans do — which means that the clock ticking toward the March 5 deadline is heard in only one party’s caucus.

Ultimately, the Democrats gulp hard and accept significant limits on legal immigration and a large installment of funding for Trump’s border wall in exchange for permanent legal protections and a path to citizenship for the DACA eligible.

Political complications: The Democrats grumble that their congressional leaders gave away too much to Trump to protect the Dreamers. Latino groups are irked by the new limitations in immigration law on family reunification.

But viewed in a different light, Democrats can argue that they permanently protected real people (the Dreamers) and gave way only on symbolism (the wall) and abstractions (unknown people who otherwise would have legally migrated to this country).

Republicans, on the other hand, have to confront the anger of the party’s nativist wing. They are outraged that Trump signed legislation that provided a path to citizenship for 1.8 million immigrants who came here as children. In the months leading up to the election, you can’t turn on conservative talk radio without hearing the word “amnesty.”

The 2018 question: Will the wall gin up GOP turnout, or will anti-immigration hawks stay home over codifying DACA into law?

Scenario: A One-Year Extension

Details: After a protracted debate in the Senate and the failure of House Republicans to agree to any deal that includes a path to citizenship, congressional leaders in both parties decide to do what they do best. Punt.

Both sides agree to limited legislation that trades a one-year reprieve for the DACA eligible for a down payment on Trump’s border wall. To pass this short-term fix, Paul Ryan reluctantly turns to Nancy Pelosi for the needed votes when GOP immigration hard-liners rebel.

Political complications: Not many, which underlines the appeal of this scenario. Democrats go into the 2018 elections talking about permanent protections for the Dreamers, while House Republicans in conservative districts get to brag about how they voted against “amnesty.”

The 2018 question: With an extension, will immigration fade as an off-year issue? 

Roll Call columnist Walter Shapiro is a veteran of Politics Daily, USA Today, Time, Newsweek and The Washington Post. Follow him on Twitter @MrWalterShapiro.