Congress had a deadline, a mandate from the president, and an overwhelmingly popular program on which to center its latest immigration reform effort. And yet, as it has so many times before, it again came up well short. Four separate votes on four separate immigration packages all failed on Thursday, leaving the immigration debate as stuck as it has ever been and adding to the failures of 2007, 2010 and 2013. And that's despite the almost universal desire to pass something — anything — to protect “dreamers.”
Now we're headed for a game of chicken.
March 5 is the deadline for the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program's expiration, after President Trump terminated President Barack Obama's executive action protecting hundreds of thousands of undocumented immigrants who were brought to the United States as children. The expiration could be delayed for months because of court challenges, but we are basically headed for a situation in which dreamers could lose their protections.
Almost everybody says they don't want that, including Trump. Yet he has attempted to use DACA as a bargaining chip in negotiations with Democrats to get more border security and even funding for a border wall. It's a highly unusual setup in which Democrats have basically been making concessions in exchange for something Trump has said he wants Congress to codify. Apparently in a desire to make it happen — and recognizing that Republicans have the power over which bills to vote on — Democrats have played ball.
But patience with what Democrats view as their good-faith effort to negotiate has now apparently run out. It's now about public pressure and gamesmanship as we draw closer and closer to the possible end of DACA.
Trump has said that DACA is dead without an immigration deal — apparently signaling he won't resurrect the program with an executive action of his own, even if just to give Congress more time. But if the program does lapse, Democrats may actually see their bargaining power increase. A recent Quinnipiac University poll showed that Americans support protections for dreamers 73 percent to 21 percent. Even Republicans backed it 49 percent to 40 percent.
Trump may argue that he can't legally renew DACA and that Congress has to do it. But if and when it lapses, he will officially have undone a program protecting young people who became undocumented immigrants because of decisions that weren't their own when they were children. If and when they get deported, it will be because of an action Trump took. That could be a PR problem for the GOP — and one Republicans may try harder to avoid as we get closer to it becoming a reality. We know from the recent spending-bill fights that Congress will go right up to, or past, a deadline.
Trump and fellow Republicans may argue that it is congressional Democrats' fault for failing to make enough concessions in the deals that earned votes Thursday. But strictly speaking, Trump is the one who undid DACA, and Congress could probably pass a stand-alone DACA bill immediately if he urged Congress to do so. He hasn't done so, of course, and the White House has even suggested that it would veto the bipartisan Schumer-Rounds-Collins bill that came up six votes shy Thursday despite it containing plenty of concessions in exchange for DACA.
The question is whether that changes as we get closer to a deadline. Both sides seem to think that the other will cave eventually. Given the spectacular failures of the four bills on Thursday, it seems that is about all that is left in this debate.
It's a hell of a way to do business. But then again, this is Congress we're talking about; things generally don't happen until there's a crisis affecting real people.