Capitol Alert

California businesses push for 2017 immigration fix in Congress, but hopes fade

With prospects dimming for a deal this year to prevent young undocumented immigrants from deportation, California business leaders and other sympathetic groups are planning a massive push over the next few weeks to force the issue to the top of Washington’s agenda.

Activists see their December bid as their last, best shot to save some 800,000 immigrants, known as “Dreamers,” who are participating in the Obama-era Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, program. DACA has enabled those young people – more than a quarter of whom live in California – to gain temporary legal status and protection from deportation. That protected status expires March 5, 2018, putting their worker permits in jeopardy and making them vulnerable to deportation.

In California, the impact on the economy would be significant. Business groups estimate the state has 188,000 DACA workers. “Our employers are worried about what happens if we no longer have the DACA protection,” Los Angeles Area Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Gary Toebben said last week on a call with other California business leaders. “They’ve hired these young people and they want to keep them as part of the workforce.”

The multiple initiatives to save the immigrants starts this week, when caravans of workers will start arriving in Washington. Activists are planning rallies in front of the White House, sit-ins on Capitol Hill and other possible acts of civil disobedience.

The business community will set up a “war room” inside the Capitol where Republican and Democratic supporters can conduct satellite interviews with national and local press.

The room will include video monitors of interactive maps with data from all 435 congressional districts and live feeds to coordinated rallies in dozens of major cities across the country, including Sacramento.

The group also plans to launch a series of national digital ads to draw attention to the effort to support DACA workers.

President Donald Trump threw their status in limbo in September when he announced he would terminate DACA next March. Trump urged Congress to use the six-month period in between to pass a legislative fix that might allow people here illegally to stay in the only country many of them have ever known. After an initial uproar, however, momentum to reach a permanent deal has ebbed.

And that worries advocates for a DACA solution, who warn it will take months to implement any deal that creates a new process to legalize the immigrants. “There is a great deal of urgency,” Inland Empire Economic Partnership President and CEO Paul Granillo said on the business leaders’ call last week. “We need the DREAM Act legislation to go to the top of the legislation that Congress needs to act on 2017.”

Right now, it’s not. Both the White House and Republican leaders in Congress are focused on passing tax reform before year-end. And Congress also needs to reach a deal to keep the government funded, with the current funding bill due to expire on Dec. 8.

The Trump administration affirmed Tuesday that its immigration priorities do not include DACA until after the border is secure.

“The President has made clear any immigration reform must first deliver for American citizens and workers. His priorities are securing the border with a wall, closing legal loopholes that enable illegal entry, interior enforcement and combating visa overstays, and ending chain migration,” said Deputy Press Secretary Hogan Gidley.

House Republican leaders, meanwhile, have signaled they are comfortable letting the issue roll into 2018, with tax reform, spending legislation and disaster aid to pay for hurricane and wildfire recovery efforts receiving higher priority.

Rep. Joe Barton, R-Texas, speaking via webcast to the Dallas Chamber of Commerce, said he would rather address the issue in December, but because of the tax bill that’s unlikely.

Democrats, however, are intent on making the immigration legislation part of any year-end spending deal. Earlier this month, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi warned that her members would withhold support from must-pass year-end spending bills, unless a DACA deal was included. “We will not leave here without the DREAM Act passing with a DACA fix,” the San Francisco Democrat pledged.

But even Democrats concede that it’s not at the top of their to-do list at the moment. Right now, negotiations with Republicans are consumed with hashing out new budget caps, a necessary precursor to a spending agreement.

It does put lawmakers in even more of a time crunch when the talks finally turn to how to resolve the status of the young immigrants. The House only has 12 working days left on the calendar before it's scheduled to depart for the Christmas holiday. The Senate is slated to be in for 16 more days.

The dwindling time-frame has raised grave concerns among supporters of a permanent fix.

“Two months have now passed, and I'm sad to report that we're arguably further away from a solution today than we were then,” said Neil Bradley, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s chief policy officer.

Political strategists working with Republicans see signs that GOP lawmakers understand the political consequences of not resolving the issue soon.

Earlier this month, more than a dozen Republicans – including San Diego-area Rep. Darrell Issa – called on leadership to offer a legislative solution this year.

A strategist working with Republicans on immigration said if the party fails to pass a DACA fix, their members risk facing political ads pointing out that they supported spending bills that included money to fund immigration enforcement, but not legislation to protect those young people.

House Republicans in California – who just had to take a difficult vote on their party’s controversial tax overhaul – are particularly vulnerable to those kind of attacks, given the number of Dreamers in the state and its importance to the California business community.

“We continue to hear encouraging comments” on the prospects for a DACA deal, “primarily from our Democratic caucus members from the California delegation,” Carl Guardino, President & CEO, Silicon Valley Leadership Group, told reporters. But “this needs to be a strong bipartisan issue.”

Emily Cadei: 202-383-6153, @emilycadei