WASHINGTON ― Sens. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) and Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) unveiled legislation on Friday to protect young undocumented immigrants from deportation under President-elect Donald Trump ― now the question is whether it will work.
The bipartisan bill, called the Bridge Act, would effectively maintain the protections of President Barack Obama’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, or DACA. More than 740,000 young people were granted deportation reprieve and work permits under the program, but could now lose those protections, should Trump follow through on a promise to end DACA immediately upon taking office.
The Durbin-Graham measure could serve two purposes: If it passes, so-called Dreamers could live without constant fear of deportation and continue to legally work and drive. If it doesn’t, it could still put pressure on Trump to keep away from DACA recipients.
He and other Democrats, joined by only a few Republicans, are scrambling to find ways to protect the Dreamers they’ve urged to come forward to the government. Durbin has been one of the top advocates for Dreamers. He introduced the Dream Act that gave them their name in 2001 and he pushed for Obama to create DACA when that legislation failed.
“I feel, as President Obama feels, a personal responsibility to help these young people weather this political storm,” Durbin told a small group of reporters.
The Dream Act would have granted Dreamers a path to legal status, as would the 2013 immigration reform bill that Durbin and Graham helped draft. The new bill would put DACA recipients into a new type of status, “provisional protected presence,” that would last for three years from enactment. It would not be constrained to only those who currently have DACA: eligible individuals who have not yet applied could be granted provisional protected presence as well. All would have to pay a fee, undergo a background check and meet the eligibility requirements for DACA.
The bill would also ensure that information individuals gave the government for DACA or for the new provisional protected presence could not be used for immigration enforcement, with exceptions for national security or non-immigration felony investigations.
The politics could be tough, but Durbin said he is hopeful. Thus far, the Bridge Act has three other co-sponsors: Sens. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) and Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.). Durbin said there is a long list of Democrats who want to join, but they are aiming to add people in pairs ― one Republican and one Democrat. They will reintroduce the bill in 2017.
Durbin said he thinks other Republicans might sign on. Even though they don’t say it publicly, Durbin said, “most of them feel it’s only fair to take care of these young people.”
Graham explained his decision to push for the bill in a series of tweets Friday afternoon.
Durbin told reporters that Trump’s recent comments on DACA recipients were, at least in tone, relatively sympathetic to them. Like Trump’s previous efforts at softening on immigration, this should probably be taken with many grains of salt. A Trump aide later told the Associated Press that the president-elect still plans to end DACA.
“We’re going to work something out that’s going to make people happy and proud. But that’s a very tough situation,” Trump told Time Magazine. “They got brought here at a very young age, they’ve worked here, they’ve gone to school here. Some were good students. Some have wonderful jobs. And they’re in never-never land because they don’t know what’s going to happen.”
Durbin acknowledged that Trump often contradicts himself, but said he was encouraged anyway. “I’m going to seize on every encouraging word,” he said.
Durbin also noted that House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) had expressed sympathy for DACA recipients. Ryan said on Thursday that they “should have something that balances the concerns of all parties involved and makes sure that we don’t pull the rug out from under people.”
Some Democrats have argued that Obama should do something more to protect DACA recipients before he leaves office. The White House has said that isn’t an option, especially House Democrats’ pleas for him to issue pardons for DACA recipients. Those Democrats say this would be legal and that he can do so for civil offenses even in a way that would preemptively pardon future unlawful presence in the U.S.; White House officials and Durbin have said that is not the case.
On Thursday, White House press secretary Josh Earnest once again shot down the idea of pardons for DACA recipients. He said Obama and his team were briefing Trump and his team on why they decided to create the program and its benefits.
“We’re also continuing to encourage Congress to take action,” Earnest said in a press briefing. “Ultimately, the kind of executive action that President Obama has pursued was largely pursued because of congressional inaction.”
Since the Bridge Act would only last for three years from enactment and because it doesn’t include everyone, it would be crucial to continue to press for broader immigration reform, Durbin told reporters. Democrats and Republicans have been opposed to piecemeal immigration reform efforts in the past, and Durbin said he had heard concerns about pushing for a bill that would leave out so many other undocumented immigrants.
Sen. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.), for example, spoke on the Senate floor on Thursday about the need to protect DACA recipients’ parents, neighbors and others as well.
Durbin said he and Menendez had talked about the matter repeatedly. Menendez’s office did not immediately respond to a request for comment on whether he supports the bill.
“We still have an important job in comprehensive immigration reform,” Durbin told reporters, “but it would be disastrous and just wrong to say that we are going to ignore what’s going to happen to the lives of these DACA individuals.”
This story has been updated to reflect that Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) signed on as a fifth co-sponsor and to include tweets from Sen. Lindsey Graham.