Deadlocked with Congress on an immigration issue that both parties say they support, President Trump has gone on the attack, blaming Democrats and further dimming the chances of agreement before November’s elections to protect so-called Dreamers from deportation.
In a speech to Republican-friendly Latino business leaders on Wednesday, Trump said he wants to sign a law replacing the Obama-era program — Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA — to allow up to 1.8 million young immigrants who are in the country illegally to stay, get work permits, attend college or serve in the military. The problem, he said, is Democrats.
“They’re nowhere to be found. It’s really terrible,” Trump said, while Republicans are “ready, willing and able.”
He urged the audience: “Go get DACA. Go push those Democrats. I’m telling you it’s lost. So this is a moment for DACA, for all of us.”
The president’s comments, which echoed his partisan tweets of recent days, reflected his sensitivity to being blamed himself for the demise of a program that is broadly popular with Americans. His speech came in a week when the program was supposed to end, by his order of last September, and after he rejected bipartisan Senate legislation to replace it last month. The president’s party, which controls Congress, has been unable to agree on legislation it could pass without Democrats’ backing.
Democrats point out that DACA’s proposed expiration is a problem of Trump’s own making, given his September order putting nearly 700,000 young permit-holders at risk of deportation.
“Right now the president created this crisis and only the president can end this crisis,” Sen. Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.) said in the Senate on Wednesday.
“Six different times we’ve gone to him and six different times he’s rejected bipartisan approaches,” Durbin said. “Congress needs to do its job.”
Court decisions have temporarily kept the program partially operating, in the meantime, requiring the administration to continue renewing the two-year protections indefinitely for people already approved for DACA permits. That was unchanged by a third court ruling this week in the president’s favor.
The two earlier federal court decisions also removed the urgency for Congress and the White House to act on a substitute program, according to lawmakers from both parties.
“While I’m glad that DACA recipients have a little bit more time, for some, that urgency is no longer there,” said Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart, a Republican from Florida who has worked on previous immigration bills.
Similarly, Sen. Roy Blunt of Missouri, a member of the Republican leadership, said on Wednesday: “Some of the time pressure has gone off DACA, but if you’re a DACA kid, you’re a DACA young adult, you still feel that pressure, I’m sure.”
It is a problem “we ought to solve,” Blunt said. “There is an ongoing discussion, but I don’t think there’s a bipartisan solution."
Republicans and Democrats each are waiting for an overture or concession from the other party, according to interviews on Capitol Hill. Democrats, however, are less eager to act in the wake of the court rulings, banking that they will have more congressional seats — and more leverage — after the midterm election results are in.
“If there was helium in the balloon, I think it has been zapped,” said Angela Kelley, a senior strategic advisor for immigration at the Open Society Policy Center, which favors looser immigration restrictions. Republicans have “no clear plan,” she added, and “Democrats would be wise to hang back and see what they come to them with.”
“Right now, Democrats are just not talking,” said Alfonso Aguilar, president of the Latino Partnership for Conservative Principles. “They are playing with the Dreamers.”
The Senate last month failed to pass either Trump’s preferred bill, which would not only legalize Dreamers but also sharply restrict legal immigration, or a separate, bipartisan measure with more support. Afterward, several Republican senators suggested extending the current DACA program as part of a government-spending bill that must pass by March 23 to avoid another federal shutdown.
Yet as Republican and Democratic leadership aides have met this week to determine what goes into the spending bill, neither side has proposed adding an immigration provision, three aides said.
The White House has opposed a short-term fix, arguing that Trump wants to hold out for significant reductions in legal immigration and for money to build his proposed southern border wall in exchange for granting legal status to Dreamers. Democrats, and some Republicans, oppose Trump’s demands.
In the House, Republicans have struggled to pass an immigration package championed by House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte of Virginia. That bill would extend the DACA program but restrict who can renew, while also cutting legal immigration and requiring employers to check a federal immigration database called E-Verify before hiring employees, among other provisions.
After lunch with fellow Republican senators on Tuesday, Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky gave no sign that he’s willing to take another stab at an immigration bill. He instead is focused on passing bills overhauling Obama-era banking regulations and acting against human trafficking, and voting on judicial nominations.
Congress would have to scramble if court injunctions lift later this year and DACA protections begin to expire.
On the Senate floor, Durbin showed a poster-sized picture of a DACA recipient named Alejandro, who, the senator said, was brought to this country at age 4, studied hard, worked at Teach for America, and is now teaching at an elementary school in Colorado.
“What’s going to happen to him if Congress fails to replace DACA?” Durbin asked, adding, “Why would we want to throw him out of this country? To me it would be a horrible waste.”