WASHINGTON (AP) — President Donald Trump‘s announcement on immigration has Congress staring down an election-year deadline on an issue that bitterly divides the president’s own party, and that has painfully eluded lawmakers time and again.
Four years after comprehensive immigration legislation passed the Senate only to die in the House, Trump tossed to Congress the question of what to do with almost 800,000 young immigrants who were brought to the U.S. illegally as children. His attorney general, Jeff Sessions, announced that the administration will begin dismantling protections these immigrants were granted by former President Barack Obama, and the program will end unless Congress acts first.
What will actually happen in six months absent congressional action remained unclear. Trump himself took some of the sting from his threats with a tweet issued late Tuesday, after a day of turmoil and debate, declaring that if Congress can’t act to “legalize” the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, or DACA, “I will revisit this issue!”
Still, Congress suddenly has the politically explosive issue of immigration on the agenda, and if the six-month deadline holds it will arrive in March of next year, just as primary season gets under way ahead of the November 2018 midterm elections with control of the House at stake. It’s an issue with devastating political potential for House Republicans, in particular, many of whom represent conservative districts that strongly embraced Trump’s tough campaign rhetoric against illegal immigration.
These lawmakers would court voters’ wrath, and potential primary challenges, if they flirted with anything that could be labeled amnesty — unless Trump himself sells his base on it first. Some of these conservatives quickly made clear they would be in no hurry to grant legal protections to the so-called Dreamers.
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“What we have to do is start with a secure southern border,” said Rep. Mark Meadows of North Carolina, head of the conservative Freedom Caucus. “If we can secure our southern border then we can really look at DACA in a different way.”
Adding to the complications, administration officials made clear they want broader reforms from Congress than just dealing with DACA recipients, who for the short term will be able to renew two-year work permits that protect them from deportation, though no new applications will be granted. White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said the package sought by the White House should also include border controls and improved enforcement and security, among other things.
“We can’t take just a one-piece fix,” Sanders said. “We’ve got to do an overall immigration reform that’s responsible and, frankly, that’s lawful. And that’s what the president wants to see Congress do.”
“And if they can’t do it, then they need to get out of the way and let somebody else who can take on a heavy lift and get things accomplished,” Sanders added.
GOP congressional leaders were quick to rule out “comprehensive” reform legislation, which is generally understood to include a solution for the 11 million immigrants in the country illegally. That is the huge sticking point at the heart of Congress’ struggles with the immigration issue, and was part of the reason for the ultimate failure of the effort in 2013.
But if the goal is a more incremental package that combines a solution for the Dreamers with steps like visa reforms and enhancing border security, “There may be a deal to be had,” said Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas.
What it might look like remained to be seen. But for a party that largely defined itself over the 2016 election cycle by increasingly hard-line rhetoric against immigration, Republicans in favor of immigration reforms saw a window of opportunity.
“From a Republican Party point of view, this is a defining moment,” said Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, who helped write the 2013 immigration bill and is co-sponsoring legislation with Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., which would allow young immigrants who grew up in the U.S. to earn lawful permanent residence and eventually American citizenship if they complete a list of requirements.
Graham said Republicans opposed to the bill and to allowing Dreamers to stay in the U.S. will have “to make the case that these kids don’t belong here. Because I’m going to make the case they do.”
Still, there was widespread skepticism that a Congress that couldn’t even make good on promises to repeal the Obama health law would be able to come together on an issue that’s bedeviled lawmakers for well over a decade.
“We haven’t been able to crack the code,” acknowledged GOP Rep. Lee Zeldin of New York.
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