Will Obama’s ‘Dreamer’ Program Continue to Survive?

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By Laura D. Francis

The deferred action for childhood arrivals program remains in full effect, nearly five months after President Donald Trump promised to end it. But does that actually spell bad news for recipients?

The program provides deportation protection and work permits to young, undocumented immigrants who came to the country as children, sometimes referred to as “dreamers.” But it remains solely an executive action that can be revoked any time. Congress—the only body that can grant permanent legal status to immigrants—has yet to act.

The question is whether Congress will take any action “without a looming deadline,” such as a definite termination date for the program, Center for Immigration Studies Executive Director Mark Krikorian told Bloomberg BNA June 12. Although Democrats would be happy to pass a standalone bill, nothing will pass Congress “without some sort of trade-off,” he said.

How much of a concession Democrats are willing to make depends on how urgently they feel the need to protect DACA, said Krikorian, whose organization supports lower immigration levels.

But “Trump’s reluctance to take on DACA has really provided the room necessary for Republicans to come up with a good solution,” Kristie De Peña, immigration policy counsel for the libertarian Niskanen Center, told Bloomberg BNA June 13. “They are actually working on some really good pieces of legislation,” she said.

No Movement

Members of Congress on both sides of the aisle and the Capitol introduced bills at the beginning of the year to provide DACA recipients with legal status, at least temporarily. But those bills so far haven’t moved.

They include the Recognizing America’s Children (RAC) Act ( H.R. 1468), which would provide legal status to roughly the same population that DACA covers. The bill’s 16 co-sponsors are all Republicans.

There’s also the Bar Removal of Individuals who Dream and Grow our Economy (BRIDGE) Act (H.R. 496/ S. 128), which would extend that status temporarily in order to “bridge” DACA recipients to when Congress enacts a more comprehensive overhaul of the immigration system. That bill has bipartisan sponsors in both the House and Senate.

Although those bills haven’t moved through Congress, neither has the Trump administration moved on the DACA program. In fact, recent statistics from U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services show that approvals of new DACA applications are at roughly the same pace as during the Obama administration.

Between January and March 2017, the USCIS approved 17,275 initial DACA applications and 107,524 renewal applications. By comparison, the USCIS approved 18,311 initial applications and 103,740 renewal applications between October and December 2016.

Kelly: Not Targeting DACA

“We are not, not, not targeting DACA registrants right now,” Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly told the House Homeland Security Subcommittee June 7. Anyone who is arrested either hasn’t actually applied for DACA or committed a crime and thus violated the program’s terms, he said.

But “I’m not going to let you off the hook,” Kelly said, responding to questioning by Rep. Martha McSally (R-Ariz.), a co-sponsor of the RAC Act. “You’ve got to solve this problem,” he said, urging legislation to provide legal status to DACA recipients. “A different person in this position might have a different view.”

“The only real solution is congressional action, and I’m really glad he said that,” De Peña said of Kelly’s testimony. More and more Republicans are supporting the RAC Act, and they’re viewing it as a “good piece” to “tack onto an enforcement package,” she said.

Krikorian would like to couple lawful status for dreamers with mandatory E-Verify, the government-run electronic system that verifies whether people are authorized to work in the U.S. “What I’m afraid of” is a bill that grants lawful status to DACA recipients in exchange for funding for Trump’s border wall, he said.

The wall is “of relatively little practical importance,” Krikorian said. There could always be improvements in border security, but “it’s not job one,” he said. Rather, making E-Verify mandatory for all employers is probably the “single most important thing” that Congress can do to help tackle illegal immigration, he said.

De Peña also sees the package including “some type” of E-Verify requirement. But border security also is a possibility, although not necessarily the president’s wall, she said. And it’s possible that a package moves as early as this summer or early fall, she said.

What to Do?

The Trump administration is seeking funding in its fiscal year 2018 budget request to implement mandatory E-Verify. That’s “clearly an indication the administration is thinking along the right lines,” Krikorian said.

“I hope they’re putting E-Verify and DACA together in their own heads,” he said of the administration and Republicans in Congress. But “I’m just terrified that they’re going to surrender” the DACA issue without getting a significant concession from the Democrats, he said.

“My sense all along” is that the administration has “no idea what to do about DACA, none,” Krikorian said.

Unlike Krikorian, De Peña says the urgency to pass some kind of legalization bill still exists, especially with recent reports of DACA recipients having their work permits revoked or being arrested by Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

Shifts in the political climate make immigration policy vulnerable to “getting changed at the drop of a hat,” De Peña said. Reports that put a negative spin on an otherwise positive program can result in a rapid policy change, and “that puts me on pins and needles,” she said.

To contact the reporter on this story: Laura D. Francis in Washington at lfrancis@bna.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Peggy Aulino at maulino@bna.com; Terence Hyland at thyland@bna.com; Chris Opfer at copfer@bna.com

Copyright © 2017 The Bureau of National Affairs, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

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