Can Congress Save DACA? It Would Be A Bumpy Ride
When President Trump announced his administration's plans to end the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, which provided work permits for 800,000 undocumented immigrants brought to America as children, his statement included a request for Congress to handle the issue. He wrote, "It is now time for Congress to act!" But even though it's true that Congress could solve the DACA problem, it remains a tough issue for the GOP.
The issue of undocumented children isn't new, and Congress has spent 16 years unable to solve it. The DREAM Act, which would have given immigrants brought to the U.S. illegally as children similar protections to DACA, was first proposed in 2001, but it couldn't pass Congress. There have been numerous attempts to pass it, with the closest it ever got to success occurring in 2010, but it has never been able to get all the way.
And yet, Sens. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) and Dick Durbin (D-IL) have announced their intentions to push for a bipartisan solution for the Dreamers, including a potential path to citizenship for those brought here as children. And with other notable GOP leaders like Speaker of the House Paul Ryan calling for a means to help the Dreamers, it seems like this could be the time for action. After all, 78 percent of Americans support letting Dreamers stay (and 56 percent support them being able to get citizenship), according to a Morning Consult poll in April.
So, yes, it's possible. But it's worth looking at the recent history of the Republican party to see why this fight is going to be brutal for them.
Back in the early 2000s, President Bush's top advisor, Karl Rove, devised a strategy for the Republican party that relied on the party's increasing support from Latino voters, typified by Bush's success as governor of Texas. He hoped that passing a comprehensive immigration reform package, including a path to citizenship for millions of undocumented immigrants, would solidify Republican dominance with the growing demographic.
But Bush's immigration reform plans fizzled as his presidency went off the rails in his second term (recall Iraq, Katrina, corruption scandals, and eventually an economic collapse). And when Latinos voted heavily for Obama in 2008 and again in 2012, Rove's theory of Republican dominance left the party along with them.
When Republicans lost in 2012, the party commissioned an "autopsy report" about what went wrong, and one major recommendation was to soften on immigration or face the wrath of the country's growing share of non-white voters. In 2013, leaders of the party sought to join with Democrats to pass a comprehensive immigration bill that would trade a path to citizenship for millions for tougher enforcement. The "Gang of Eight" bill passed the Senate handily.
But even as the party leadership sought a compromise on immigration, the anti-immigrant forces within the GOP base were rebelling. Eric Cantor (R-VA), the House Majority Leader, was primaried out of office by a political nobody named David Brat, due largely to his support for immigration reform. The bill died in the House, after Republicans in Congress decided that supporting it would go against their voters.
In the years since the Republican autopsy report, we've seen repeated examples of the GOP base dragging their leadership to a more hawkish position on immigration. Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio, the two Republicans who most represented a softer tone of the GOP towards immigrants and Latinos, entered the 2016 presidential primary as seeming frontrunners. But then Donald Trump came in, talking about building walls, Mexican rapists, and a deportation force.
Right now it looks like Republican leaders want to help immigrants. But if we've learned anything over the past four years, it's that when the GOP establishment tries to do that, the GOP base rebels, and punishes them. Already, Jeff Flake (R-AZ), one of the Republican senators most interested in helping immigrants, is facing serious primary threats in his next election.
The difficulty for the Republican Congress is compounded by the utter ineffectuality they've had in passing their agenda so far. They failed to repeal Obamacare — a priority for GOP voters. It's hard to imagine Republicans managing to pass a bill their most fervent voters hate when they couldn't pass one their voters wanted more than anything.
In the meantime, Congress has a lot on its plate to accomplish in the next month, including "must-pass" pieces of legislation such as funding the government and raising the debt ceiling.
In the midst of this, President Trump still supposedly wants Congress to fund his wall on the Mexican border. There has been some talk of the funding being tied to whatever fix Congress seeks for DACA, which could make it difficult to secure the likely necessary Democratic votes to pass a fix, since the opposing party has really dug in its heels against the wall. It looks clear that while Congress could fix DACA through legislation, it will be far from easy for it to get done.