House Speaker Paul D. Ryan on Capitol Hill on Jan. 21. (Drew Angerer/Getty Images)
Opinion writer

Amid all the talk of who “won” the government shutdown, there’s an extremely important question that needs to be asked, one that concerns real people’s lives: What happens now to the “dreamers”?

Almost everyone in both parties professes to care about the young people who were brought to America as children and grew up here, whom President Barack Obama protected by installing the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, which President Trump canceled last fall. Can they actually hope to be protected? Will the deal Democrats made with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) result in a permanent extension of DACA and a path to citizenship for them? Will Trump betray them at the urging of his hard-line anti-immigrant advisers?

The truth is that there is one person who can answer all those questions, one person who has the power both to forestall another shutdown and literally keep hundreds of thousands of young people from having their lives destroyed. That person is House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.), and unfortunately, there isn’t much reason to believe he’ll do the right thing.

The agreement Senate Democrats struck with McConnell was the following: they would support reopening the government until Feb. 8, and between now and then, McConnell would allow a vote on an immigration bill that would provide protections for the dreamers. There are a couple of different proposals floating around, but the bill will probably include some money for a border wall and other restrictions that Republicans want, such as ending the diversity visa lottery.

But whatever the Senate passes would then have to pass the House. The trouble there isn’t getting the votes, because a bill that was acceptable to the Senate would likely be able to pass the House without much of a problem. Presuming all or nearly all House Democrats vote for it, it would only need two dozen of the 238 Republican members to join in. The question is whether Ryan would allow a vote on a bill. If he does not, the dreamers would lose their work permits and likely be driven underground. Some could be deported — ripped away from their families and the country they grew up in, to be sent back to places they barely know. It is no exaggeration to say their lives are in Ryan’s hands.

And what do we know about what he’ll do? Like most Republicans, when questioned about dreamers, Ryan says the right things. Last January, Ryan had a powerful exchange with a dreamer mom, during which he hailed her contribution to her community and said he and Trump want to act to allow people like her to “get right with the law.” More recently, in September, he said that dreamers should “rest easy,” because the Republican-controlled Congress would make sure they get to stay. In December, he again said he wanted to “make sure that we don’t pull the rug out from under people.”

But if Ryan is going to be true to those sentiments, he might have to break another promise — one he made to the hard-right Freedom Caucus.

In 2015, when Ryan was vying for House speaker, Freedom Caucus member Rep. Mo Brooks (R-Ala.) demanded and received a promise from Ryan that, even after Obama was gone, Ryan would allow no immigration bill to be voted on unless it had the support of “a majority of the majority.”

So let’s say the Senate passes a bill to protect dreamers. That bill might or might not be able to get a majority of House Republicans. Either way, Ryan may refuse to allow the bill to come to a vote — in effect vetoing any compromise. Then we could be facing another government shutdown.

Minus the shutdown, that’s what happened in 2013. A bipartisan “Gang of Eight” spent months crafting a comprehensive immigration reform bill, which passed the Senate 68-32. When it was sent to the House, Speaker John A. Boehner killed it in deference to his party’s hard-right wing. Then as now, the bill would have passed if Boehner had allowed it to be voted on.

But what about Trump, you might ask? His own feelings are fluid on this issue, depending on what he saw any given morning on “Fox & Friends,” or whether his latest double cheeseburger is sitting right. He says admiring things about the dreamers, but he’s also an obvious bigot who wants to make America more white. We’ve seen many times how he can be pulled back from conciliatory positions by the hard-liners on his staff, including John F. Kelly and Stephen Miller.

It would be very different if Trump were to actually be presented with a bill he had to either sign or veto — particularly one that provided funding for his beloved wall. It’s clear that Trump doesn’t worry about the details; he wants “wins.” And if he’s given the kind of bill that we’re talking about, he’d also be able to say he succeeded where Obama failed, and there may be no more important thing to him. So yes, if a bill to protect the dreamers passed both houses, he’d sign it.

That leaves it up to Ryan. He’s already under pressure from his right, and this morning Politico reports that House Majority Whip Steve Scalise (R-La.) “told us the House doesn’t feel at all bound by [McConnell’s] agreement with Senate Democrats to consider immigration legislation by Feb. 8.”

What it ultimately comes down to is these questions: How deep is Ryan’s cruelty? Will he condemn hundreds of thousands of dreamers to possible deportation because he’s afraid of the ultra-right members of his caucus? Or will he do what he himself says is the right thing?

We all know that once the threat of the government shutdown has passed, there won’t be any immigration compromise. The conflicts within the Republican Party are just too deep. So it’s now or never, and the fact that dreamers are going to have to rely on Paul Ryan’s humanity makes it hard to be optimistic.