Trump Might Hold Dreamers' Futures Hostage, But No One Is Sure What He'll Demand

Members of Congress are split on whether to tie the fate of young undocumented immigrants to other measures that could sink a deal.

WASHINGTON ― Lawmakers in Congress are deeply divided on the question of how to address young undocumented immigrants who came to the U.S. as children. And President Donald Trump isn’t offering many answers.

Members of both parties have come out of recent meetings with Trump insisting that he shares their views on what to do about so-called Dreamers, who are set to lose deportation protections and work permits in larger numbers beginning in March after the president rescinded the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program. Last month, Democratic leaders said Trump had agreed to pair Dreamer measures with border security ― and that alone. But on Tuesday, Republicans said Trump told them he would demand more in exchange for legal status for young undocumented immigrants ― potentially including funding for a border wall, more interior enforcement and rigid definitions for which Dreamers would make the cut.

Trump said he wanted Congress to act on Dreamers. Now, they’re stuck reading tea leaves and tweets to figure out how he wants them to do it.

“What we really need is White House leadership on exactly what the six-month timeline that the president has placed on Congress to do our jobs looks like,” Sen. Thom Tillis (R-N.C.) said during a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on Tuesday.

He and other senators expressed some frustration with the lack of clarity over what Trump would demand in a deal to protect DACA recipients and other Dreamers. The president has said repeatedly that border security will need to be involved, which Democrats are largely willing to accept. But the White House, like some Republican lawmakers, has also mentioned a litany of other policy priorities ― some of which could sink a deal with Democrats ― without specifying whether those items would be must-haves in order to approve legal status for Dreamers. 

Please do not put the burden on the Dreamers to accept every aspect of comprehensive immigration reform to get a chance to become citizens of the United States. Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.)

Lawmakers couldn’t even get details about what Trump wants from the Dreamer provisions specifically. Department of Homeland Security Assistant Secretary Michael Dougherty said during Tuesday’s hearing that under a “rational bill” Dreamers would be allowed to stay in the U.S. as legal permanent residents, which would allow them to eventually become eligible for citizenship. But he repeatedly declined to give any detail on what conditions Trump would demand.

“What if we get it wrong and he’s not happy?” Sen. John Kennedy (R-La.) asked, pointing out that it will be up to Trump to either sign or veto a bill.

“I don’t know what happens then, sir,” Dougherty said.

“I do,” Kennedy quipped.

Dougherty also gave a long list of Trump’s immigration priorities, in addition to a “solution to DACA”: controlling the border, making it easier to swiftly deport certain people, reducing visa overstays, preventing fraud, improving vetting, changing worker visas and switching to a “merit-based system.”

That would be “too much to ask” as part of a Dreamer deal, said Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), the top champion of the Dream Act that would grant Dreamers legal status. Durbin noted that many of those measures were part of a sweeping comprehensive immigration reform bill in 2013 that passed the Senate and died in the House.

“Please do not put the burden on the Dreamers to accept every aspect of comprehensive immigration reform to get a chance to become citizens of the United States,” he said.

Tillis later agreed with Durbin that the administration seemed to be giving “a laundry list for comprehensive immigration reform.”

“If Congress has proven an extraordinary ability to do anything, it’s to fail on comprehensive immigration reform,” Tillis said. “So it would be very helpful to get from the administration what the priority is.”

Other Republicans were on board with tying Dreamer protections to other immigration issues. Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), who chairs the Judiciary Committee, said during Tuesday’s hearing that any deal would need border security ― although not a wall ― along with making it easier and faster to deport other undocumented immigrants and mandating an E-Verify system for employers to check the status of would-be hires. Grassley said that if everyone was “reasonable,” this could get done.

Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) said at the hearing that a comprehensive effort wouldn’t work, but that he would work with colleagues to pass border security and enforcement measures first. If Democrats were willing to work with them, they could address Dreamers next, he said.

Cornyn told reporters that he is expecting the White House to soon outline its Dreamer proposals to Congress.

The White House offered no comment beyond a summary of the meeting Monday evening with Republicans, which, according to a spokesperson, “focused on shared priorities for immigration legislation, including legal authorities to close border security loopholes, restoring interior enforcement, and reforming the legal immigration system.”

Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), who with House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) met with Trump last month and said they had reached an agreement for border security and Dreamer protections, told reporters Tuesday afternoon that he had received no word that anything had changed. He said they were clear at the time that interior enforcement would not be part of the deal.

“If they’re backing off it because of pressure from the hard right,” Schumer said, “America ought to know and we ought to know.”



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