Will the DACA Deal Turn Into Comprehensive Immigration Bill?

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By Laura D. Francis

With all the clamor over what should go in the deal to provide legal status to dreamers, could the bill ultimately turn into another attempt at a comprehensive overhaul of the immigration system?

If so, that could doom the legislation. A more narrow, DACA-focused bill is more likely.

“You’ve got to fix every piece of the system in order to make it work,” Alex Nowrasteh, an immigration policy analyst at the Cato Institute, told Bloomberg Law Jan. 26. “But that was a killer in 2013,” he said, referencing the comprehensive immigration bill that passed the Senate that year but died in the House.

“The way I understand this proposal” from the White House is that “it’s take it or leave it,” Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies, told Bloomberg Law. “I don’t think they saw this as an opening bid and then there would be give and take,” he said Jan. 26.

The White House’s legislative framework, originally mentioned Jan. 24 and expanded upon Jan. 25, would provide legal status and eventual citizenship to 1.8 million undocumented immigrants. It also would create a $25 billion trust fund for a border wall and include other enforcement measures. And it would cut some family-based visa categories and eliminate the diversity visa lottery, farming out what would have been diversity visas to whittle down existing backlogs in family- and employment-based visa categories.

‘Dead on Arrival’

“I think the White House proposal is dead on arrival,” Stephen Yale-Loehr, a professor of immigration law practice at Cornell University Law School, told Bloomberg Law Jan. 26. “Substantively it contains too many poison pills for Democrats to swallow,” and “it also may go too far for conservative Republicans who are opposed to granting legalization for up to 1.8 million noncitizens,” a big leap from the 690,000 currently in the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, said Yale-Loehr, who also practices with Miller Mayer in Ithaca, N.Y.

“Procedurally, there’s just no way that Congress can enact something in two weeks,” he said.

“Congress will go along with a lot of the border security,” but the “chain migration” and diversity visa proposals are “really going to get moderated if Congress makes any changes,” Nowrasteh of the Cato Institute said. Cato, a libertarian think tank, supports an overhaul of the immigration system.

Narrower Measure Needed

For anything to pass in a short period of time, it likely will have to be narrower than what the White House has proposed.

“I think there’s a desire on both sides of the aisle to resolve the DACA issue and get to a narrow deal,” Rebecca Peters, director of government affairs for the Council for Global Immigration, told Bloomberg Law Jan. 26. “The president is really just laying down a marker” that’s “renewing the discussion,” she said.

“If they want to get a deal done, it has to stay narrow,” said Peters, whose organization advocates for immigration changes on behalf of multinational corporations. But “we have to see how Congress handles its process,” she said.

Needs 60 Votes

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) has said he would allow an immigration bill to go through the Senate through the regular process if a deal isn’t reached by Feb. 8, Peters said. “I speculate you would see a number of amendments” on various immigration issues if that’s the case, she said.

The question really is whether the deal can maintain the 60 votes needed to pass in the Senate, Krikorian said. If senators on both sides of the aisle start adding amendments to keep those votes in place, “you end up with a Christmas tree that falls over,” he said.

“Even if it got 60 votes, what would the House do?” Krikorian said. “They’ve gotten tired of this idea that all immigration bills have to originate in the Senate,” and “they’re going to want to pass their own thing,” he said. In fact, it “would’ve been better for the House to pass something and present the Senate with it,” he said.

“Both sides want things that are too different, and the Democrats smell blood in the water,” Nowrasteh said. The White House’s offer of legal status for 1.8 million undocumented immigrants “reeks of desperation,” and the Democrats aren’t going to compromise that easily, he said.

In fact, Sen. Ted Cruz’s (R-Texas) opposition to the legalization portion of the White House proposal suggests that Republicans are likely to oppose it, he said. “A lot of people want to be to the right of Ted Cruz” politically, and that means “this bill or any Republican plan might have even less support” than the 2013 Senate bill, Nowrasteh said.

If Congress does pass a DACA deal—either by Feb. 8 or later—the question remains whether that will create momentum for lawmakers to take up other elements of the immigration system.

“We would be hopeful that they would,” but “the issue is very divisive” and it’s an election year, Peters said. “I think we have to see how the DACA negotiations and the process move forward and whether or not the DACA issue is resolved,” she said. “That will dictate what is or is not possible moving ahead.”

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