A wave of pessimism on immigration has swept over Washington, even as two senators, a Republican and a Democrat, have joined together to offer a new proposal to protect the “dreamers.” A deal is looking increasingly unlikely to happen, especially as the administration keeps proposing to cut further into legal immigration as the price of President Donald Trump’s cooperation.
To be clear, it wouldn’t be that hard to come up with a compromise both Democrats and Republicans could live with. The problem is that there are just too many points at which a deal can be shot down, and not enough reason for Republicans to feel as if they have no choice but to come to an agreement. And lurking in the background is the man who can and probably will stop just about any immigration compromise: House Speaker Paul D. Ryan, R-Wis.
The new proposal offered by Sens. John McCain, R-Ariz., and Chris Coons, D-Del., is a simple one. It would give legal status to all dreamers who entered the country before 2013 and bolster security along the border (though it would not actually fund the wall). While it might seem like a good starting point – Democrats get something they want, Republicans get something they want – right now Republicans feel as though they have the advantage on this issue. Despite the fact that around 8 in 10 Americans want to see the dreamers protected, they’re probably right.
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As a way to understand everything that’s going on, it might be best to lay out some of the critical factors determining the outcome of this debate:
▪ Democrats care a great deal about the dreamers. Republicans, on the other hand, have some sympathy for the dreamers, but it wouldn’t really bother them that much to see them deported. This puts the Republicans in an advantageous position, since they can live with the status quo. Democrats would see the lack of a deal as a catastrophe, while Republicans wouldn’t, which means any group of Republicans who wants to destroy the whole thing might be willing to.
▪ Trump and Republicans do want to build a wall, but they don’t feel an enormous urgency about it. It could start now, or in six months, or a year, or later. On the item the Democrats care about – the fate of the dreamers – there is a great deal more urgency. This, too, gives Republicans an advantage, since they can and will walk away if there are details they don’t like.
▪ The urgency over the fate of the dreamers comes from the fact that Trump canceled the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program and created a deadline in March for it to be solved with legislation. He’d like us all to forget that and act as though the deadline just came from nowhere, but it was his choice.
▪ Democrats are not going to shut down the government to make a stand on DACA. “I don’t see a government shutdown coming,” said Sen. Dick Durbin on Sunday, which you can interpret as the second-ranking Democrat in the Senate saying they aren’t going to force one. The simple reason is that shutting down the government won’t work to save the dreamers. You can call them spineless cowards if you want, but if you’re going to advocate a shutdown in order to achieve a particular goal, you have to have a plausible theory of how the shutdown will achieve that goal. If the theory is that Republicans will eventually cave in and give Democrats whatever they want because the shutdown is too painful, you need a new theory.
▪ There are any number of possible immigration deals that could pass the Senate, where there are multiple Republicans who are open to a reasonable compromise.
▪ There are also any number of possible immigration deals that could pass the House. However, Ryan will not allow any bill to be voted on if it doesn’t have the support of the ultra-right immigration restrictionists in the GOP caucus. With his ability to kill any bill he wants, Ryan has a veto just as powerful as Trump’s.
▪ Despite the venomous anti-immigrant fear-mongering Trump regularly engages in, he too would be willing to accept any number of deals.
In one sense, that last assertion is a reason for hopefulness. It’s true that Trump derailed negotiations on multiple occasions with his demand for restrictions on legal immigration and his railing about wanting to keep out people from “shithole countries.” But Trump has an even more powerful motivation to make deals and prove that he can get things accomplished. That desire is multiplied when we’re talking about something that previous presidents, especially Barack Obama and George W. Bush, wanted but failed to do.
At the same time, some of Trump’s most influential aides, especially John Kelly and Stephen Miller, have been pushing him to restrict legal immigration, an idea he is very sympathetic to. So they could once again talk him into opposing any deal that falls short of that – making this one point at which a deal could get shot down.
Another way a successful immigration deal could happen is without the involvement of the White House. There’s no rule saying members of Congress have to negotiate with the president; they can pass whatever they want, send it to the president’s desk and put the onus on him to sign it or veto it. And if they did - even something like the McCain/Coons bill that omits most of what the president wants - he’d still sign it. If he had the chance to scrawl his signature across a bill that would allow him to then claim that he did what Obama couldn’t do, there’s no way in the world he’d pass up the chance, no matter how much the white nationalists on his staff would bleat.
But Ryan won’t allow that. There’s a lot of focus on what happens in the Senate, including the pledge Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., made as part of the deal that ended the brief shutdown last month, in which he promised to let an immigration bill be debated and voted on. But if Ryan won’t let anything but the most draconian restrictions come to a vote, the Senate doesn’t much matter. So that’s another point at which a deal could get scuttled.
There’s one last route Congress could take: a temporary one-year extension of DACA, essentially punting the issue off until later. Nobody seems to like the idea, but it’s certainly better than a wave of deportations hitting young people who have grown up in the United States. If that could somehow be snuck past the House, that would temporarily alleviate the problem – but a long-term deal will still have proved elusive.
Of course, that might at least prevent the dreamers from getting driven underground until Democrats can take back the House. And we probably aren’t getting a real immigration bill until that happens.
Paul Waldman is a contributor to The Plum Line blog at the Washington Post and a senior writer at The American Prospect. Follow him on Twitter @paulwaldman1.