Republicans Could Protect Dreamers If They Wanted To. But Will They?

They're in a bind.

WASHINGTON ― Republican lawmakers who have said they sympathize with young undocumented immigrants who came to the U.S. as children will now get the chance to prove it.

President Donald Trump has decided to terminate the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, or DACA, with a six-month delay on enforcement, Politico and Reuters reported on Sunday evening. An official announcement is expected on Tuesday with further details.

Ending the program would mean nearly 800,000 so-called “Dreamers” who have been in the U.S. since they were children would eventually lose two-year work permits and be at risk for deportation.

Trump’s decision puts Republicans in a bind. Many of them have said they think something should be done to help Dreamers, and some pro-immigration-reform Republicans have joined Democrats to push for legislation.

But most Republicans ― including party leaders in the House and Senate ― have repeatedly voted to block legislation that would allow young undocumented immigrants to stay in the country. House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) hasn’t allowed votes on bills that would allow legal status for Dreamers, and his predecessor, former Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio), let a comprehensive immigration reform bill that passed the Senate in 2013 die in the House.

Ryan and other GOP members now say they’re ready for legislation. But the question will be whether they’re willing to break from the past and work with Democrats to make it happen. Doing so could invite primary challenges from the right.

Ryan said on Friday that he had urged Trump not to end DACA because he believed Congress should pass a bill to protect Dreamers.

“There are people in limbo,” Ryan said on the radio station WCLO in Janesville, Wisconsin. “These are kids that know no other country, who were brought here by their parents and don’t know another home, and so I really do believe there needs to be a legislative solution, that’s one that we’re working on.”

Others similarly urged Trump not to end the program, which he is expected to announce Tuesday ― the deadline set for him by 10 state attorneys general who threatened legal action if he did not terminate DACA by that date.

Speaking about Dreamers, Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) told The Washington Examiner Sunday evening “we ought to take care of them,” and it wasn’t their fault they had come to the country illegally.

“In any legislative fix, I would like to see them receive a green card,” he said. “We ought to recognize that giving them legal status has two problems. First, it creates a whole new class of people who will then be eligible for a green card and citizenship ― namely, the extended family members of those who will receive legal status who can, through chain migration, get legal status themselves.”

Cotton added such a program would also encourage more illegal immigration, a problem he said could be fixed by passing an immigration bill he and Trump both back that would make it more difficult to come to the U.S. legally. That bill would face heavy opposition from Democrats and some Republicans because it would slash legal immigration numbers. He also called for expanding E-Verify, a government system employers can use to verify the identity of job applicants.

On Friday, Tennessee Attorney General Herbert Slatery (R), announced he would not take part in the legal challenge to DACA as he’d promised and called for legislation on Dreamers. Slatery encouraged senators to support the Dream Act, a bill that would provide a path to legal status for undocumented young people who came to the country as children, or legislation like it.

The Dream Act currently has bipartisan sponsors in both the House and Senate, but a majority of Republicans have opposed past efforts to get it through Congress since it was first introduced in 2001.

Sen. James Lankford (R-Okla.) also urged Trump not to end DACA.

“It is right for there to be consequences for those who intentionally entered this country illegally,” he said in a statement. “However, we as Americans do not hold children legally accountable for the actions of their parents.”

Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) said in a Monday statement he supported seeking a legislative solution to the plight of Dreamers, should Trump give Congress a six-month window to act.

“I have always believed DACA was presidential overreach. However, I equally understand the plight of Dream Act kids who ― for all practical purposes ― know no country other than America,” said Graham.

Some Republicans are also pushing for the Recognizing America’s Children Act, or RAC Act, which they’re calling a conservative answer to the Dream Act. It similarly would allow Dreamers to receive legal status and eventually become eligible for citizenship, but would have narrower eligibility requirements. Sen. Thom Tillis (R-N.C.) plans to introduce the bill in the Senate in the coming weeks; Rep. Carlos Curbelo (R-Fla.), a moderate member, has already introduced it in the House. It also has backing outside Congress: Florida Gov. Rick Scott (R) came out in support of the bill last week.

There are GOP members who would likely support legislation for Dreamers as standalone bills, without other conditions. But most have said they would only vote on bills that help undocumented immigrants if Congress first addresses border security or enforcement measures ― if they would vote for them at all.

Democrats have previously supported bills coupling border security and enforcement with legal status for undocumented immigrants. But they’d likely only go so far ― Democratic leaders have dismissed an idea floated by the White House to protect Dreamers in exchange for slashing legal immigration numbers, funding Trump’s border wall and increasing other deportation efforts.

Democrats have argued Dreamers shouldn’t be used as a bargaining chip, and young undocumented immigrant activists agree. That means Democrats and advocates may eventually be forced into a bind of their own over whether to sell out other immigrants to protect Dreamers.

Standalone bills that support Dreamers could likely get enough support to pass, but that would probably require a large number of Democratic votes and a smaller proportion of Republicans. Ryan and McConnell would have to bring those bills for a vote for it to happen. Whether they want to remains to be seen.

For all of the Republican opposition to DACA, it has saved them for five years from having to actually do anything to support the Dreamers they say should be helped. That might be why some of them didn’t want Trump to end it.

This story has been updated to include a comment from Sen. Lindsey Graham.

CORRECTION: A previous version of this story stated that House Speaker Paul Ryan did not allow a House vote on an immigration reform bill that passed the Senate in 2013. In fact, that decision was made by his predecessor, John Boehner.

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