Politics

Here's how Congress could act to save DACA

Sens. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., and Dick Durbin, D-Ill., spoke about their Dream Act to help protect DACA recipients at a press conference on Tuesday.
Sens. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., and Dick Durbin, D-Ill., spoke about their Dream Act to help protect DACA recipients at a press conference on Tuesday.
Alex Wong/Getty Images

With President Trump's announcement on Tuesday that his administration was ending the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program (DACA), the White House made clear they want a legislative solution from Congress to protect the roughly 800,000 "DREAMers," who came to the U.S. illegally as children and now face the possibility of deportation.

There are several pending bills in Congress, spearheaded by both Republicans and Democrats, that could gain more steam now that Trump has made the decision to disband the program in six months. DACA was first implemented by President Obama in a 2012 executive after Congress failed to pass comprehensive immigration reform or a bill that would have provided protections to immigrants who came here illegally as children, through no fault of their own, and who have no criminal record.

While Congress could pass a standalone bill to just address DACA, White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders hinted in her briefing on Tuesday that Trump wanted "comprehensive reform" and dodged on whether Trump would sign a bill just addressed at DREAMers.

In a tweet later Tuesday, Trump seemed to signal he wanted broad immigration reform and didn't single out DACA specifically.

"I have a love for these people and hopefully now Congress will be able to help them and do it properly, and I can tell you, speaking to members of Congress, they want to be able to do something and do it right," Trump had told reporters just hours earlier. "And really we have no choice, we have to be able to do something, and I think it's going to work out very well, and long-term it's going to be the right solution."

He later left open a chance that he could reconsider the wind-down if legislators reach an impasse.

If Congress wants to act to help DREAMers before their protections expire, there are several bills pending that could do the job — all of which could gain steam in the wake of President Trump's decision.

But with Congress set to juggle many major tasks over the next month — including providing disaster funding for victims of Hurricane Harvey, raising the debt ceiling, passing a budget and addressing the White House's push for tax reform — it's unclear how much political capital GOP leaders can throw behind such a bill. House Speaker Paul Ryan has signaled his willingness, but Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has not. And the legislative branch has not shown an ability this year to pass anything of consequence.

Here's a rundown on some of the top pending legislation:

Dream Act, sponsored by Sens. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., and Lindsey Graham, R-S.C.

The senators held a press conference Tuesday afternoon after the Trump administration's announcement, saying they're pushing for action on their latest iteration of the Dream Act by the end of September. While Durbin was highly critical of Trump's decision, Graham said he believed it was the right decision, because he thought Obama had overstepped his legal authority by issuing the far-reaching executive decision. The South Carolina Republican said he believed Congress would be pushed to act

"The reason I think it will get done now is that the leadership of the Republican Party, including the president, realizes it's good for the country economically and otherwise to give these kids the certainty they need in their lives," Graham said.

According to the National Immigration Law Center (NILC), the Dream Act has many of the same protections in place as DACA does, and also creates a path for citizenship or permanent legal resident status if applicants meet certain requirements; DACA did not provide such a path.

Qualifications for permanent status in the Dream Act include having lived in the U.S. for a certain length of time and meeting certain educational, work or military service requirements. It would take at least 13 years for those eligible to achieve citizenship.

However, the White House has already signaled they wouldn't support this bill: When Graham and Durbin proposed it in July, Trump's legislative affairs director Marc Short said, "I think that the administration has opposed the Dream Act and likely will be consistent on that."

Recognizing America's Children (RAC) Act, sponsored by Rep. Carlos Curbelo, R-Fla.

The Miami congressman's plan, which he introduced in March, also takes much of what was in DACA and codifies it, while also providing a pathway toward legal status and, eventually, citizenship.

"The bill provides immigrants that have been vetted by The Department of Homeland Security with three pathways toward legalization: higher education, service in the armed forces, or work authorization. Following a 5-year conditional status, these immigrants would be able to reapply for a 5-year permanent status," Curbelo said in a press release announcing the bill earlier this year. At the end of their permanent status — after a total of 10 years, according to the NILC — DREAMers could apply for citizenship .

"These are young people that went to school with our own children, they are working in this country, they are contributing to this country, they speak English, Curbelo said on Tuesday on CNN's New Day. "This is the only country that many of them remember. So we should afford them — as long as they're willing to be productive members of society, which most of them are — we should afford them the opportunity to be fully recognized as Americans and to gain legal status in this country."

Curbelo represents a majority-Hispanic district that went for Democrat Hillary Clinton by 16 points over Trump last November — making Curbelo a major target in the 2018 midterms.

Hope Act, sponsored by Rep. Luis Gutierrez, D-Ill.

Gutierrez introduced this bill in July, flanked by the Congressional Hispanic Caucus; 112 Democrats already had signed on to cosponsor his legislation.

To be eligible, people must have entered the U.S. before age 18. It does not include any work, education or military requirements, but does reject people who have been convicted of certain crimes, according to the NILC.

It also provides the fastest path to citizenship. Those eligible can apply for conditional permanent residency, valid for up to eight years, and after three years can apply for lawful permanent residence status. After a total of five years, they can apply for U.S. citizenship.

"DACA is under threat, and we know that President Trump and the attorney general, if he is still in office, will not lift a finger to defend DACA," Gutierrez said back in July. "This will replace the order in the lives of these young people with chaos. It will replace the hope they have for their futures with despair. It substitutes cruelty for their aspirations and the aspirations of our entire immigrant population. All of us here support DACA. We fought for DACA and we will defend DACA. And the defense includes putting on the table legislation that charts a way forward."

BRIDGE Act, sponsored by Rep. Mike Coffman, R-Colo.

As soon as news broke over the weekend that Trump was going to end DACA, Coffman announced he planned to file a discharge petition to get his bill to the House floor. The rarely-used method requires a simple majority of signatories to circumvent party leaders and bring up a bill for a vote by the full House.

The BRIDGE Act — which stands for Bar Removal of Individuals Who Dream and Grow our Economy — was proposed back in January, and essentially would codify the current DACA program into law and extend it for three years, allowing Congress more time to come up with a comprehensive, long-term solution on immigration reform.

Unlike the other bills in Congress, it does not include a path to citizenship.

"The members of Congress have a choice: They can let the program be phased out and these young people be subject to deportation, or they can sign this petition for the Bridge Act," Coffman told The Denver Channel on Monday. "The federal government knows where they are, so if there are deportation proceedings, they could be expedited."

Like Curbelo, Coffman is also facing a tough reelection campaign in 2018; he serves a district that Clinton won by 9 points.

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