President dumps Dreamers on a hapless US Congress

Handing the immigration hot potato to a chaotic, factionalised majority party on Capitol Hill
is not a recipe for success, especially for the most vulnerable, writes Francis Wilkinson

Judy Weatherly holds up a sign during a protest in San Francisco. Picture

The mixed signals and cowardice emanating from Trumpworld on the fate of almost 800,000 ‘Dreamers’ will soon be complemented and echoed by mixed signals and cowardice emanating from Republican members of the US Congress and from Republican-aligned, nominally pro-immigrant business groups such as the US Chamber of Commerce.

It turns out President Donald Trump, who in the spring said Dreamers should “rest easy,” didn’t actually mean it. Trump issued a written statement announcing the end of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals programme initiated by Barack Obama in 2012.

Almost 800,000 undocumented immigrants who were brought to the US as children and have lived here for at least a decade have benefited from DACA, which enabled them to enrol in college, gain work permits or join the military without fear of imminent deportation.

Over the next two years, the Trump administration will gradually extinguish the permits that made all that possible. The spirit of the Trump plan was conveyed in remarks by US Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who before joining the administration, was the most anti-immigrant member of the
US Senate.

Sessions, who has backed an ad-hoc executive ban on Muslim immigrants but considers an executive reprieve for Dreamers a gross abuse of presidential power, was too timid to take questions.

His effort to sound sympathetic toward Dreamers wasn’t entirely successful. Deporting undocumented immigrants doesn’t mean that they are “bad people or that our nation disrespects or demeans them in any way,” Sessions said. It’s just that “failure to enforce the laws in the past has put our nation at risk of crime, violence and even terrorism.”

Aside from the crime and violence and terrorism, Sessions wishes Dreamers, who submit to criminal background checks to qualify for the programme, all the best.

Once a marginalised political outlier, Sessions is now the face of American immigration policy.

To seize the initiative from Sessions and his former Senate aide Stephen
Miller, who has become a powerful Trump White House aide, US House speaker Paul Ryan and Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell will have to pass legislation.

A new Dream Act is straightforward and ready to go in the Senate, sponsored by Republican Lindsey Graham and Democrat Dick Durbin. It would
grant DACA beneficiaries conditional permanent resident status and provide a pathway to citizenship.

The Bridge Act, in the House, would extend DACA for three years. Majorities in both houses would likely
support either bill. But that would require Democratic votes, which House Republicans are especially reluctant to sanction.

Ryan has avoided tangling with the nativists in his conference, led by Iowa Representative Steve King. McConnell, meanwhile, is facing a push by Republican Senators Tom Cotton of Arkansas and David Perdue of Georgia to severely restrict legal immigration.

Neither leader seems to enjoy Trump’s channeling of some of the
uglier, more subterranean, tributaries of immigration politics into the mainstream. But neither is inclined to buck GOP tribalism either.

There has long been speculation that a Dream Act would be paired with funding for a border wall or perhaps other security measures, such as mandatory E-Verify to screen workers for legal status.

“I don’t think that the president has been shy about the fact that he wants a wall and certainly that’s something that he feels is an important part of an immigration reform package,” White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said.

Few members of the US Congress view a border wall as anything more than Trump’s Folly. Democrats are unlikely to vote to fund it, which means a struggle in the House to pass it before it meets a likely dead end in the Senate.

Meanwhile, business has never been excited about mandatory E-Verify, which would put industries that rely on illegal labour — construction, agriculture and others — in a difficult spot while exposing others to new oversight, bureaucracy and the threat of vexing mistakes by an imperfect system.

Handing the Dreamers hot potato to a chaotic, factionalised majority party in Congress is not a recipe for success. Earlier this week, King tweeted that a Republican leadership attempt at “amnesty” for Dreamers would be “Republican suicide.”

Yet now that the reckless executive has ducked, the dysfunctional US Congress may be all the Dreamers have.

This is an especially dangerous moment to be vulnerable and in need of something real from Washington.

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