WASHINGTON — A week after concerned Republicans promised quick work to shield young, unauthorized immigrants from President Donald Trump’s decision to end their federal protections, lawmakers have tied themselves in knots trying to figure out how to proceed — with only six months to find a way forward.
If anything, advocates for immigrants brought to this country as children may have lost ground.
Rep. Mike Coffman, R-Colo., pulled back a petition he had initiated to force the House to take up legislation to protect so-called Dreamers. A Senate Judiciary Committee hearing into the issue was canceled this week. And Rep. Bob Goodlatte of Virginia, chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, said he would not move on any such legislation before he addressed criminal alien gangs and border security.
“With all the other things going on right now, it’s kind of put on the back burner,” Coffman conceded.
When Trump announced last week that he would end the Obama-era Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program in six months, that time frame was supposed to light a fire under Congress. Instead, it may have hit the snooze button, Coffman said.
“He could have done an immediate phase out,” he said. “That would really put pressure on Congress to put DACA right on the top of the agenda. But in giving Congress six months, with all the other things going on right now, the debt limit, the appropriations, tax reform, it’s not certainly on the top of the agenda right now.”
Coffman, a top target for Democrats in next year’s midterm elections, had planned to circulate a “discharge petition” to force a vote on a three-year extension of DACA that he wrote with Rep. Luis V. Gutiérrez, D-Ill. But he called off the action after Speaker Paul Ryan said he wanted a broader immigration measure that twinned enhanced border security measures with legalization for young immigrants.
The Senate Judiciary Committee had planned to hold a hearing on DACA on Wednesday but postponed the meeting at the request of the Trump administration, according to a congressional aide who was not authorized to discuss the meeting. Rep. Bob Goodlatte of Virginia, the House Judiciary Committee chairman, said this week that he would hold no DACA hearings until border security legislation is drafted.
Instead, this week the House will take up the Criminal Alien Gang Member Removal Act, aimed at MS-13 and other immigrant gangs, and the Legal Workforce Act to expand electronic worker verification efforts. Goodlatte said he would follow those bills with legislation dealing with immigrant agricultural workers.
“We are happy to have discussions with anybody who wants to talk about what we need to do with DACA, but I would say DACA is at the end of that list, not at the beginning,” said Goodlatte in an interview. “We can’t fix the DACA problem without fixing all of the issues that led to the underlying problem of illegal immigration in the first place.”
That leisurely attitude may not have been what the president had in mind when he wrote on Twitter last Thursday, “For all of those (DACA) that are concerned about your status during the 6 month period, you have nothing to worry about.” But Trump has played a role in complicating efforts to pass stand-alone legislation protecting such immigrants, known as the Dream Act.
In a meeting at the White House last week, Trump pressed Sen. Chuck Schumer of New York, the Democratic leader, for 15 minutes about paring funding for a border wall with protections for Dreamers, according to a person familiar with the meeting, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not cleared to discuss internal deliberations. Both Schumer and Rep. Nancy Pelosi of California, the House Democratic leader, rejected the deal.
On Tuesday, Marc Short, the White House legislative affairs director, told reporters that Trump was unlikely to stand by his wall-funding demand, though he said the administration is still “interested in getting border security.”
“I don’t want us to bind ourselves into a construct that makes reaching a conclusion on DACA impossible,” Short said.
Rep. Michelle Lujan Grisham, D-N.M., chairwoman of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus Chair, said she is still hopeful that Americans will rally around the 800,000 young immigrants facing deportation.
“They are panicked and we understand that real, raw fear,” she said. “I can’t even deal with the possibility that we fail because I know what’s at stake.”
Rep. Steny Hoyer of Maryland, the Democratic whip, was cautious. “I wouldn’t say that I’m confident about Republicans putting it on the floor,” he said. “But I’m hopeful, and we’ve had positive discussions.”
Coffman did say he is prepared to sign a Democratic petition to force a vote on the Dream Act — a rare overture to the minority party. But with 194 members, Democrats are going to need quite a few Republicans to get the 218 signatures they need, and even Republicans with large Latino populations in their districts are reluctant.
Rep. Jeff Denham, R-Calif., said he does not plan to sign the Dream Act discharge petition.
Pelosi and Schumer are maneuvering to get the Dream Act attached to the fiscal deal that will have to be struck in December to keep the government funded through an omnibus spending bill.
“Republicans will be unable to pass an omnibus in December depending on Republican votes alone,” Pelosi said in a statement. “That increases Democrats’ leverage.”
But any hope of bipartisan momentum seems to be dissipating.
“Whether this six month opportunity gets across the goal line remains to be seen. I wouldn’t place a bet,” said Rep. Bennie G. Thompson of Mississippi, the top Democrat on the House Homeland Security Committee.