Attorney General Sessions announced earlier this month week that the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program will end in six months, leaving the futures of approximately 800,000 young people hanging in the balance. Attention immediately turned to what this may mean for Congress and the Republican Party, which controls Congress but voted against prior versions of the Dream Act and blocked recent efforts to pass comprehensive immigration reform. Given how polarized Congress has become in recent years, many seem to think passing such legislation will be an uphill battle. Yet President Trump and Jeff Sessions may just have handed the Republican party a significant gift. Here’s why.
Republicans know that most Democrats ― and many Republicans ― want a permanent legislative resolution for DACA recipients. Many on the far right say they support transforming DACA through legislative means. Moderate Republicans are supportive, with many clearly stating they want a DACA-fix. President Trump has also revealed his personal preference several times since Sessions’ announcement. The night after, following many demonstrations and push-back, the president tweeted he would “revisit” the issue if Congress cannot get DACA legislation passed in six months. Days later after siding with Democrats on the three-month debt ceiling extension, he responded to a request by Nancy Pelosi and tweeted additional reassurance to DACA recipients.
If bipartisan support exists – assuming it is real and not hyperbole – it offers Republicans an opportunity that hasn’t occurred since they first took control of both houses of Congress in 2014. They could build on the Dream Act legislation introduced in Congress by Republican Senator Graham and nine cosponsors (three Republicans and six Democrats) in July 2017. It is a stand-alone bill, offering a path to U.S. citizenship for those who are undocumented, have DACA or Temporary Protected Status, and who graduate from U.S. high schools and attend college, enter the workforce, or enlist in the military. Republicans could also design another piece of legislation that focuses on DACA and includes legislative add-ons. If this was signed into law, then DACA could indirectly help Republicans by offering them an opportunity to accomplish some of their party’s legislative objectives.
Although less immediate, there is another reason why shifting the DACA issue to Congress may be a gift to the Republican Party. If DACA legislation is passed, Republicans will go down in history as the party under which a large group of immigrants obtained a path to lawful residence. If viewed as the party that created and passed a DACA-fix, Republicans may benefit over the long term from the voting power of DACA recipients and their relatives. This gain will be offset by some loss of support from Trump’s base, but a short-term loss may be possible to sustain if the promise of long-term support from new constituents is strong enough.
No one knows what the future holds. Whether and how both parties will work toward a legislative solution to DACA is not clear. There are certain to be complications and pitfalls that both will have to manage, and as evidenced this week, the president’s actions will also matter.
So if Republicans can pass a legislative fix for DACA, it may well benefit them politically in a number of ways. But whoever benefits, it is in America’s interests to legislate a way for DACA recipients to obtain permanent residence. Ultimately, over the very long term, we will remember whether Congress made it possible for DACA recipients to lawfully remain in the United States ― rather than specifics about the political machine that produced it.