WASHINGTON — Senators Roy Blunt and Tammy Duckworth are on the opposite ends of the political spectrum, but they agree on one thing: Young people brought to the United States illegally by their parents should not be deported from the only country they know.
“Unreasonable,” is how the conservative Blunt, R-Mo., describes that possibility, pointing out the contributions that law-abiders among these young people — 798,942 by the government’s count — make to the economy and society.
“Heartless and irresponsible,” is how the liberal Duckworth, D-Ill., phrases it. “Congress must act immediately and make DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) the law of the land.”
That last point is where the disagreements begin.
Congress has contemplated this question, and many others related to legal and illegal immigration, for 16 years, without resolution. Splits between Democrats and Republicans have long scoured the debate.
But, increasingly, divisions between hard-line Republicans who believe the issue is primarily that of law and order, vs. more moderate Republicans, like Blunt, who want a compromise to thwart deportation of the “dreamers” while trying to adhere to the rule of law, has also inflamed the debate.
On Tuesday, Trump forced the issue. A president who promised to thwart illegal immigration and build a wall on the Mexican border has started a six-month clock for Congress to do something about it.
What happens if Congress does not act is anyone’s guess. Current and recent Congresses have had a history of kicking the biggest problems down the road.
Through his Attorney General Jeff Sessions, the president announced Tuesday that the administration does not believe the current DACA program, begun by former President Barack Obama in 2012, would survive legal challenges threatened by 10 mostly southern states. Sessions criticized Obama’s “disrespect for the legislative process” when he issued the order five years ago.
“Congress should carefully and thoughtfully pursue the types of reforms that are right for the American people,” Sessions said. “…We are a people of compassion and we are a people of law. But there is nothing compassionate about the failure to enforce immigration laws.”
So federal legal and immigration officials have started a six-month, rolling phase-out of DACA that would start sending the nearly 800,000 people into more tenuous immigration status starting March 5, unless Congress changes the law.
How big, and how possible, those changes would be are not knowable at this point, especially with a Congress that has struggled to come up with any solutions on big-ticket items like health care, transportation and tax reform. But many in both political parties say Congress now must act.
“The idea that you would send somebody who came to the United States when they were 3, 4, 5 or 6 back to a different country than they grew up in and expect them to live effectively in that country is unreasonable,” Blunt told Missouri reporters last week.
On Tuesday, he called for a “permanent, commonsense solution that will allow them to continue working and going to school in the only country that many of them have ever known.”
In the wake of the announcement, Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., who first introduced legislation to grant permanent residency status to undocumented minors in 2001, joined with Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., for passage of that act, commonly called the DREAM Act, by the end of September.
“We have plenty of time, right? Not by Senate standards we don’t,” Durbin, the second-ranking Democrat in the Senate, said. “Let’s move and do it now.”
“Now we have a timely reason, compelling reason — DACA is about to expire,” he said.
Graham, a supporter of the DREAM Act, also acknowledged some members of his party believe that granting permanent legal status would incentivize more illegal immigration. But Graham also said that while he and Durbin disagree over the constitutionality of the Obama order — Graham called it an “unconstitutional overreach” — he and Durbin may have accord in a broader immigration reform proposal that would include beefed-up border enforcement.
House Speaker Paul Ryan said after Sessions’ announcement that he hoped Congress could pass a “permanent legislative solution.”
Duckworth and other Democrats were more blunt.
“Make no mistake: This decision is not about ‘rule of law,’ ” Duckworth said Tuesday. “This is a gut-wrenching betrayal of American values that leaves nearly 800,000 of our neighbors vulnerable to deportation and tears families and communities apart.”
Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., called Trump’s decision “as dumb as it is counterproductive.”
She added: “Republican leaders in Congress should use this opportunity… to tackle the issue so there is certainty and the rule of law to allow these young people to keep contributing to America.”
Rep. Blaine Luetkemeyer, R-St. Elizabeth, said that “I agree with the president that Congress must do our job and fix our broken immigration system.
“I look forward to discussing policies and proposals in the months to come that will ensure a fair and just immigration system that prioritizes American citizens and does not unfairly punish individuals who were brought to our country through no fault of their own,” Luetkemeyer said.
Rep. John Shimkus, R-Collinsville, agreed that the announcement “puts necessary pressure on Congress to act on illegal immigration.”
He said the House had already started immigration reform, including voting to crack down on so-called “sanctuary cities” and to devote $1.6 billion toward a wall on the border with Mexico. But Democrats oppose those initiatives and they are likely to continue to be sticking points if linked with DACA-related legislation.
Rep. Rodney Davis, R-Taylorville agreed that “we need stronger border protections and enforcement measures, which the House has already started to address.”
Obama “said himself in 2012 that DACA was never meant to be a permanent fix,” Davis said. He called for a “permanent, bipartisan solution that balances compassion and lawfulness.”
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