WASHINGTON ― The chances of passing protections for undocumented young people this year are all but dead in the Senate, but House Democrats insisted on Wednesday that they aren’t giving up, raising the specter of a government shutdown if they hold the line.
It’s a big if.
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) urged Democratic members in a letter on Wednesday to vote against a yet-to-be-released government spending bill ”[u]nless we see a respect for our values and priorities” ― one of them being support for legal status for so-called Dreamers, the young undocumented immigrants who came to the United States as children.
Immigration reform advocates believe the government funding bill, which must pass by Friday to avoid a shutdown, is the best hope for passing protections for Dreamers who are at risk of losing work permits and deportation protections they received under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, which President Donald Trump rescinded in September. Some are already at risk, and if Congress does nothing, nearly 700,000 of them will eventually be in danger of being deported as their two-year permits expire, at a rate of close to 1,000 per day beginning in March.
Multiple Democrats and a small number of Republicans have said they won’t vote for a spending bill without those protections. But the gambit is almost certainly doomed in the Senate, where several Democrats have said they are willing to vote with Republicans to avoid a shutdown, even if it means Dreamers have to wait for protections.
Senate Minority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), a stalwart immigration reform advocate who said he would vote against a spending bill without Dreamer provisions, acknowledged on Wednesday that it is unlikely such a deal will come together by Friday, although he will keep fighting for one.
“I’m sorry,” Durbin said about he would like to tell Dreamers. “I’m sorry that what we thought would be a moment and an opportunity did not happen.”
Republican leaders, including Trump, have insisted they can kick the issue to January. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said in a statement on Wednesday that he would bring a bill to the Senate floor for “a free-standing vote” if bipartisan negotiators come to an agreement on DACA, border security, interior enforcement and other immigration matters by the end of January.
That’s a frightening prospect for Dreamers and their allies, who note that an average of 122 DACA recipients already lose status each day and that the path forward in January isn’t so simple.
“What folks are wondering, most especially the people impacted by this, is when we’re going to make our stand. ... We’re certainly making it now.” Rep. Joaquín Castro (D-Texas)
Durbin, who is part of the bipartisan talks, said that at a Tuesday evening meeting of the group, White House Chief of Staff John Kelly laid out “the anti-immigration wishlist” the administration wants in exchange for protections for the Dreamers Trump put at risk.
If the administration sticks to its demands, it could doom the entire effort because Democrats ― and Dreamers themselves ― oppose trading protections for a portion of the undocumented population with measures that would imperil the rest of it.
“It’s possible to put a bill on the floor, but whether or not it’s possible to get 60 votes for it is a different question,” Durbin said, referring to the number needed to avoid a filibuster in the Senate. “There has to be some give and take.”
That’s exactly why he and other supporters of Dreamers favored doing something as part of the spending bill, where the broadly popular issue of legal status for young undocumented immigrants wouldn’t be sunk by other contentious immigration measures.
In the House, some think it’s still possible it could get into the spending bill.
Rep. Carlos Curbelo (R-Fla.), one of only two Republicans who said they’d oppose a spending bill without a DACA fix, said he had told Pelosi he believes they “have the votes to force a compromise before the end of the week.” He told HuffPost that the later it gets into next year, “the harder it will be to reach a workable compromise for everyone.”
“It will end up more likely that we just do some patch that doesn’t meaningfully address this issue,” he said. “We need to solve this once and for all. These young people have waited too long.”
Rep. Luis Gutierrez (D-Ill.), a leader on immigration reform who also pledged to vote against a spending bill unless it includes Dreamers, said he was “not optimistic” about the current debate and predicted a grim future if it goes into negotiations next year.
“Here’s what I imagine will happen in the end: They’ll have a piece of paper and they’ll tell every Republican, ‘Write what you want on it,’” he told reporters Wednesday. Giving up leverage over the spending bill would be the wrong choice, he said, because “once you give that up, you open a Pandora’s box of mean, ugly things against Dreamers.”
Gutierrez accused fellow Democrats of not adequately standing up for the Dreamers, including party leaders, who have recently emphasized they are making multiple demands for measures to be attached to a government funding bill, not just the Dreamer issue. Pelosi’s letter to Democratic colleagues urging them to vote against the yet-to-be-released spending bill also mentions the need to address opioid addiction, veterans aid, and funding for pensions and the National Institutes of Health.
Rep. Nanette Barragán (D-Calif.) said she is not ready to give up on Dreamers and that it’s wrong for other Democrats to do so.
“I’m disappointed that any Democrat right now would concede that it’s not going to happen until January,” she told reporters after a press conference on Wednesday calling for action for Dreamers. “We have an opportunity here to use the leverage that we have.”
She and other Congressional Hispanic Caucus members insisted that on the House side, Democrats are united in wanting to hold firm.
“What folks are wondering, most especially the people impacted by this, is when we’re going to make our stand,” Rep. Joaquín Castro (D-Texas) told reporters on Wednesday. “When are we going to make our stand on this? That’s what people most of all want to know ... We’re certainly making it now.”
That’s not to say they think it will be easy. Congressional Hispanic Caucus Chairwoman Michelle Lujan Grisham (D-N.M.) likened the debate to threading a rope through “a needle that’s the size of a hair, maybe smaller.”
“It’s hard,” she told reporters Wednesday. “And I don’t think anyone has said we see an easy, crystal clear path, but I’ve won harder things, so let’s keep fighting.”
CORRECTION: A previous version of this story incorrectly referred to Rep. Joaquín Castro (D-Texas) by the name of his brother, Julian Castro.