These Are The Paths Republicans Might Take On DACA Amnesty

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Will Racke Immigration and Foreign Policy Reporter
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Now that the Trump administration has decided to phase out a memorandum that shields illegal immigrants brought to the U.S. as children from deportation, the burden shifts to Congress to figure out what to do about the nearly 800,000 people granted relief under the program.

Republicans have been nearly unanimous in denouncing the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) order as an executive overreach, but they are far from united on the question of amnesty for the program’s beneficiaries.

As the DACA issue jumps to the forefront of an already crowded agenda, Congressional Republicans are eyeing three potential options: letting the program die without a legislative fix, passing a stand-alone bill to preserve the order, or making a deal with Democrats that maintains DACA protections in exchange for concessions on immigration enforcement and cuts to legal migration levels.

Conservatives in the House say Republicans should back off any legislation on DACA and focus instead on tax reform and a Fiscal Year 2018 budget with spending cuts. The House Freedom Caucus in particular is wary of working on a bill to give permanent amnesty to illegal immigrants — a move that would anger the conservative base — before tackling other issues on the legislative agenda.

“I think moving on to something that’s controversial, that a lot of Republicans didn’t run on, you know, I think that that would be a mistake,” Florida Republican Rep. Ron DeSantis said Monday on Fox News. “I think we gotta do what the American people sent us here to do and that’s gotta be the first order of business.”

Iowa Republican Rep. Steve King, the foremost immigration hawk in the House, says any move to confer legal status on DACA recipients — commonly known as “Dreamers” — would alienate conservative voters who see the Obama administration program as an illegal amnesty.

“Ending DACA now gives chance 2 restore Rule of Law,” King tweeted Sunday. “Delaying so R [Republican] Leadership can push Amnesty is Republican suicide.”

At the other end of the GOP spectrum, House Speaker Paul Ryan and top senators such as Lindsey Graham are urging Congress to pass a bipartisan bill that will allow DACA recipients to stay in the U.S. and keep their work permits. The preferred move for this group is to pass some version of the Dream Act, a longstanding effort in Congress to provide a path to citizenship for certain categories of illegal immigrants brought to the U.S. as children.

Ryan and Graham have called Obama’s DACA order a “presidential overreach” and supported Trump’s decision to end the program. Unlike the GOP’s immigration hawks, however, both are leading efforts to work with Democrats on a DACA replacement.

“It is my hope that the House and Senate, with the president’s leadership, will be able to find consensus on a permanent legislative solution that includes ensuring that those who have done nothing wrong can still contribute as a valued part of this great country,” Ryan said Tuesday, according to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.

Graham, who has previously championed the Dream Act, is teaming up with Democratic Sen. Dick Durbin of Illinois on the latest version of the bill. The senators introduced last month the 2017 Dream Act, which would grant lawful permanent residence and eventually U.S. citizenship to illegal immigrants who work for at least three years, pursue higher education or join the military.

“Our legislation would allow these young people — who grew up in the United States — to contribute more fully to the country they love,” Graham said in a statement announcing the new Dream Act. “They have a powerful story to tell and this may be an area where both parties can come together.”

At a news conference following Tuesday’s announcement, Graham said he was confident that Republican senators would find common ground with enough Democrats — and the White House — to reach a compromise by March 5, 2018, when DACA permits will begin to expire without the possibility of renewal.

“We’re not going to allow these kids [Dreamers] to be a victim of a broken political process,” he said.

A third way forward for Republicans is to fold a DACA-like amnesty into a bigger immigration reform bill that includes elements of  Trump’s agenda, including cuts to legal immigration, funding for the border wall and mandatory e-Verify for businesses. Arkansas Republican Senator Tom Cotton has entertained the idea of combining DACA into the RAISE Act, a bill he co-sponsored that would slash legal immigration levels and move the U.S. to a merit-based system for admitting immigrants.

“We should find a way to give [them] legal status,” Cotton told the Washington Examiner. “But we also have to mitigate the inevitable consequences of that action.”

Some immigration hawks favor such a deal, provided that any green cards issued to former DACA recipients are offset by cuts elsewhere. Mark Krikorian, director of the Center for Immigration Studies, says any agreement must include a provision in the RAISE Act that ends the practice of family chain-migration.

“The RAISE Act’s elimination of the unlimited legal immigration category for parents of citizens is key here: If we’re going to amnesty young people in part because they did not make the decision to come here illegally, then those who did make that decision should not be permitted to benefit from the amnesty,” he wrote last week in a blog post for National Review.

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