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The Senate's Failure to Secure a Deal for Dreamers

DACA Recipients Face Uncertain Future After Senate Misses its Best Opportunity Yet

The Factors at Play

Dominating the political landscape since President Trump's decision last year to terminate the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program (DACA) this upcoming March 5th have been questions as to what fate awaits its recipients, commonly referred to as Dreamers. While immigration policy is as polarizing as it has ever been in recent memory, Americans as a whole generally support the Dreamers' right to remain in the United States, though under what terms remains a divisive question. 

What has caused this mostly bipartisan support for the Dreamers' plight is that, simply put, they are just about as sympathetic a group of immigrants as one could hope to observe, refugees aside. They were brought to the U.S. illegally on their family's coattails, clearing them of blame for the beginning of a life that has developed these now grown individuals into being just as American as anyone. For many, being forced to return to their native countries would place them in a land as foreign to them as it would be to their citizen neighbors.

Excepting the few minority individuals who decry any bill that could be viewed as granting amnesty to illegals, where Americans really diverge is in deciding what a piece of legislation protecting these now vulnerable residents should entail. Some would simply like a basic continuation of the DACA program in which recipients are to continue the re-authorization of their protected statuses while offering no added path to citizenship. For these advocates, at least, there would be much less political distress had the Obama era program not been rescinded in the first place.

For those that do insist on a path to citizenship, the principal disagreement is over just how broad a group this should encompass, be it only former DACA recipients whose numbers are placed at around 700 thousand, or the Dreamer-defined group as a whole, which could amount to almost 2 million such affected individuals. 

Republicans focusing on the political game and wishing not to incense anti-immigration constituents were more interested in what could be extracted for such a deal. These mostly involved components such as increased funding to a wall and other border security measures as well as cuts to legal immigration through family-based programs and the diversity visa lottery. Other concerns included certain rights generally bestowed to newly naturalized immigrants, such as the ability to sponsor parents for immigration benefits.

All these interests and demands came into play the week prior to the President's Day congressional recess, when Republican Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell held true to his promise in beginning a debate and open amendment process that would hopefully result in legislation offering a DACA fix. It was the best opportunity for a deal yet, a deal that, at least at its basic level, enjoys a rare degree of bipartisan support in the country.

Senate Fails in DACA Fix for Dreamers

So what went wrong?

Two Popular Bills, and One (The White House's) Not So Much

Throwing a wrench into the entire debate process was the White House's insistence that the accepted bill follow its own previously asserted guidance on what a deal should look like, virtually to the letter. While this would provide reportedly 1.8 million Dreamers with a pathway to citizenship after twelve years, it also included severe cuts to family-based immigration, the complete dismantlement of the diversity visa lottery and increased border security funding - not to mention an additional $25 billion in funding for the president's long-coveted border wall. For Democrats and even a significant number of Republicans, this was an emphatic nonstarter. 

Regardless, the Grassley bill was drafted in this fashion. Its lack of support was of course no surprise when put up to a vote, the bill failing 39 to 60 as it was doomed by near-united opposition by Democrats and even a meaningful portion of Republican dissidents. 

On the other end of the political spectrum, the most liberal bill on the docket was substantially closer to the necessary 60 vote threshold required, though still falling painfully short at 52. The bipartisan-sponsored Coons-McCain bill, or United and Securing America (U.S.A.) Act, as they labeled it, would have established a path for citizenship for the estimated 1.8 million Dreamers just as the other two bills included, but offered no funding for a border wall, opting instead for some additional security measures and a more comprehensive plan to secure the borders by the year 2020.  With few concessions to the President's desired plan, it is again no surprise that the measure failed to obtain the required votes. 

Finally, the bill containing the most favorable odds of success was a more moderate attempt that fell between the polarities of the other two. Put out by the bipartisan "Common Sense Caucus," a numerous grouping of senators led by Republican Susan Collins, the Democrat leadership-endorsed Common Sense Plan would have provided a path for citizenship while also allocating $25 billion for border security and preventing the affected Dreamers future ability to sponsor their parents.

This was by far the best shot at DACA fix throughout the entire process, and at some points it even appeared poised for a desperately needed successful outcome. However, the White House once again insisted on its legislative format, found in the Grassley bill, and threatened to veto any other that passed. While eight Republicans held steady in their support of the bill, enough others were sufficiently unnerved as to join the rest of their party and a few Democrats in scuttling the effort.

It failed 54 to 45, the senators adjourning for their ten day recess while leaving DACA recipients with no sign of reprieve as the March deadline nears. 

What Happens Now 

Unfortunately, the current uncertainty will continue until the Senate makes another effort at addressing the rescinded program, and it seems unlikely that anything substantial will be accomplished as long as the current administration remains firm on its demands. Moreover, Senate Majority Leader McConnell has now held his end of the deal in ending the government shutdown, so it is not clear that enough impetus remains to begin the process anew. 

Some discussion is now being had as to if Congress could take a half-measure by simply reinstating the DACA program in more or less its original form, the key difference being that the program would be in place by means of the legislature rather than executive authority. 

As for now, because of the court decision delaying the effective termination of the DACA program, former recipients can still renew their statuses until the courts resolve the issue. A list of helpful clinics for doing so can be found here.