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Democrats call protections for ‘Dreamers’ a lame-duck priority

Senate and House leaders seek Republican help to permanently protect undocumented immigrants who came to the country as children

Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y., speaks during a news conference Wednesday about the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program outside the Capitol, alongside Sen. Alex Padilla, D-Calif., and Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto, D-Nev.
Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y., speaks during a news conference Wednesday about the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program outside the Capitol, alongside Sen. Alex Padilla, D-Calif., and Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto, D-Nev. (Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer told a group of immigrant advocates and reporters at an event Wednesday that his “focus is on Dreamers,” or undocumented immigrants who came to the country as children, during the waning weeks of this Congress.

The New York Democrat, who controls the Senate’s agenda, has said that members of his party were working on legislation to help these immigrants and seeking to reach a deal in the lame duck, while the Democratic party still controls the House.

“My message to Senate Republicans is this: Work with us,” Schumer said in front of the Capitol. “Work with us on this widely supported policy so we can reach agreement that will protect families and strengthen our economy.”

Senate and House leaders kicked off the post-election lame-duck period with similar pledges to prioritize legislation to permanently protect recipients of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, or DACA, a long-time goal of immigrant advocates.

But even Democratic leaders acknowledge their efforts may fall short, with a slate of legislative tasks quickly filling up Congress’ calendar through the end of the year, opposition from some Republicans and the prospect of an increase in migration levels.

Democratic Whip Richard J. Durbin, who also chairs the Judiciary Committee that oversees immigration bills, said at Wednesday’s event that passing legislation to put DACA recipients on a path to permanent status is a “high priority this month in the Senate.”

But the Illinois Democrat also conceded that he only has “four or five” Republican votes secured at this point, short of the 10 Republican votes needed to join Democrats to overcome filibuster rules and move legislation in the evenly divided Senate.

And the day before, Durbin acknowledged in a brief interview that prospects for an immigration deal — which would likely also include measures ramping up border security — while “worth pursuing,” are “a long shot.”

Republican interest

Interest in the issue from Senate Republicans, still reeling from midterm elections where they did not retake control of the chamber, has been mixed.

Republican Sen. Roy Blunt of Missouri, who is retiring next year, signaled support for legislation to protect Dreamers, calling it “a pretty easy thing to accomplish if they want to accomplish that.”

Sen. Rob Portman of Ohio, the top Republican on the Homeland Security committee who is also retiring, said he is “always interested in immigration reform,” but cautioned that a deal may not come to fruition given that there is “so little time and so much to do” this year.

Republican Sen. Mitt Romney of Utah was more pessimistic, calling a potential immigration deal this year “nearly impossible.”

When asked about prospects for a deal, Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., who has sponsored stand-alone bills to put Dreamers on a path to citizenship with Durbin, demurred.

“Let’s find out what happens in Georgia,” Graham said, referring to a Dec. 6 runoff election for a Senate seat that will determine whether Democrats hold the majority with a 50-50 split or a 51-49 advantage.

Other complications

A Tuesday night court ruling striking down public health-related asylum restrictions, known as the Title 42 policy, could further complicate Democrats’ efforts to win over Republicans. The judge on Wednesday gave the government until Dec. 21 to end the policy, which allows border agents to rapidly “expel” migrants at the border without considering their asylum claims.

Republicans have already latched onto Title 42 to block legislative action earlier this year, when the Biden administration was first considering rescinding the policy, amid concerns of high migration levels at the U.S.-Mexico border.

The Department of Homeland Security appeared Wednesday to try to preempt a rush of migration toward the U.S.-Mexico border once the restrictions are rescinded, releasing a statement that the “border is closed.”

Asked Wednesday if he anticipated Republicans would force the issue again during DACA negotiations, Durbin responded that the Title 42 policy “is going to be part of the conversation.”

Waiting for Republicans

Democratic leaders on both sides of the Capitol announced plans Tuesday, the Senate’s first full day back in Washington after nearly two months away, to make a DACA legislation a priority in the lame duck. It’s unclear exactly in what form an immigration compromise could arrive.

House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Md., announced at a Tuesday morning caucus meeting that he would be pushing for relief for DACA recipients before the new congressional term.

The Democrat-controlled House passed legislation in March 2021 that would create a citizenship path for Dreamers, as well as for other populations of undocumented immigrants. But that bill garnered just a handful of Republican votes, and the Senate has yet to put forth its own version.

“We have time and time again stood on the right side. We’re waiting for Republicans in the Senate to do the same,” Rep. Pete Aguilar, D-Calif., vice chair of the House Democratic Caucus, said at a press conference Tuesday.

Democratic leaders have indicated any such deal could be attached to the expected fiscal 2023 appropriations package, or to another must-pass bill.

Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., who chairs the Senate Appropriations Committee’s panel on homeland security, said he would hope appropriators would be open to allowing any bipartisan immigration provisions to hitch a ride on the funding bill, but that “there’s no white smoke yet on a bipartisan agreement.”

A compromise could also emerge from the House side. House Judiciary Chairman Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y., said Tuesday his committee staff has started working on something to help DACA recipients that would be “basically the same” as the bill the House passed last year.

Rep. Raul Ruiz, D-Calif., who chairs the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, also said that the House “is going to do our part” to achieve a bipartisan agreement and that Democrats are “willing to negotiate.”

But Aguilar said the House has already sent legislation across the Capitol, and the ball is now in the Senate’s court to put forth a counterproposal.

“I don’t see a path for the House doing something additional on our own,” Aguilar said in a brief interview. “I think we’re waiting on the Senate, and we look forward to having conversations on what the best policy to place in an omnibus could be.”

Lindsey McPherson and Michael Macagnone contributed to this report.

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