That means the issue is poised to break through in an election year that has been dominated by the coronavirus pandemic and, now, protests over police brutality. Trump’s team plans to blame Democrats for not being willing to negotiate, hoping the message will help the president appeal to Hispanic voters. Democrats, and their likely presidential nominee Joe Biden, are running on a pledge to permanently enshrine the program that has protected Dreamers, known as the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals.
“What happens has significant risks and opportunities for both parties,” said Ali Noorani, executive director of the National Immigration Forum, an immigrant advocacy group. “Who can blame the other side for deporting DACA recipients is what it comes down to.”
Already, Jared Kushner, the president’s son-in-law and senior adviser, has floated including DACA as part of a broader immigration package after the Supreme Court ruling, according to two of the people familiar with the conversations. And some Senate offices, both Republicans and Democrats, have started talking about what they could ask for in exchange for legal status for Dreamers, according to those familiar with the conversations.
Yet finding any congressional solution on DACA will be nearly impossible for a divided Congress in an election year. Additionally, lawmakers are focused on responding to the coronavirus pandemic that has already killed more than 100,000 in the U.S. and ravaged the economy, as well as racial inequality after the death of George Floyd, a 46-year-old black man killed in police custody.
Still, several Trump aides are pushing the president to offer Democrats a deal. If they refuse, the aides believe they can put the onus on Democrats for being unwilling to come to the table. They think the move could help Trump appeal to Hispanics in the election, perhaps slicing into the advantage Democrats have with the group. It’s an attempt to replicate an approach previously used by former George W. Bush aide Karl Rove, who is advising Trump’s campaign. Bush — who aggressively courted Hispanics by breaking into Spanish, visiting minority neighborhoods and touting his “compassionate conservative” philosophy — won 35 percent of the Hispanic vote in 2000 and 43 percent in 2004, the highest for a Republican nominee since exit polling began in 1972.
The pending Supreme Court case is the end result of Trump’s attempt in 2017 to shut down the DACA program, which he argues President Barack Obama illegally created in 2012. Trump was taken to court over the issue and the Supreme Court, sometime in the next few weeks, will decide whether Trump has the authority to undo DACA. During oral arguments in November, the court’s conservative majority appeared to side with the Trump administration on shuttering the program.
Trump made cracking down on immigration the centerpiece of his 2016 campaign, promising to build a wall on the southern border with Mexico, deport millions of migrants who arrived in the country illegally and end DACA, which provides renewable work permits to Dreamers.
But Trump’s rhetoric on the issue has wavered as president. When he moved to end the program, Trump offered a six-month wind-down period designed to give Congress time to pass legislation to make the program permanent. Trump spoke of his “great heart” and “great love” for the Dreamers. But just last November, he also lashed out at Dreamers on Twitter: “Many of the people in DACA, no longer very young, are far from ‘angels. Some are very tough, hardened criminals.” (Immigrants with criminal records aren’t eligible for DACA and can be removed from the program if they commit crimes.)
About 650,000 immigrants are DACA recipients, according to federal data from December. The number has dipped with some failing to renew or securing legal protections in other ways.
Biden, who was vice president when DACA was created, has vowed to reinstate the program and allow Dreamers to receive federal student aid, calling Trump’s decision to end the program “cruel and counterproductive.”
“The next president must institute effective immigration reform while restoring regional policies grounded in respect,” Biden wrote in an op-ed last year. “That starts by recognizing that DREAMers are Americans, and Congress needs to make it official. The millions of undocumented people in the United States can only be brought out of the shadows through fair treatment, not ugly threats.”
A senior administration official disputes that Kushner told senators that DACA would be part of a larger immigration package, saying the president is considering various options as he waits for the Supreme Court decision. No decision has been made and Trump, who is down in the polls, could still decide he will try for a deal in a second term or end the program immediately, taking a political risk with Hispanic and moderate voters to appease his conservative base.
Kushner has been talking to lawmakers for months about a 600-page bill that would grant permanent status to more high-skilled, well-educated immigrants, while reducing the number of immigrants who enter the U.S. based on family ties. The bill, which has not won much support, even from Republicans, didn’t originally include DACA but Kushner has suggested to Senate offices that it could be added.
At a meeting last year, María Teresa Kumar, president and CEO of the Latino political organization Voto Latino, urged Kushner and Kirstjen Nielsen, then the Department of Homeland Security secretary, to include DACA in any immigration plan pushed by the White House, according to a person familiar with the meeting.
After Democrats took control of the House in 2019, the lower chamber did pass a bill, largely along party lines, to provide legal status and eventual citizenship to 2.3 million Dreamers, including DACA recipients. The Senate, which needs 60 votes to pass legislation, has ignored it.
“If the Supreme Court rules as expected, the Trump administration must immediately begin a six-month wind-down as they originally intended,” said RJ Hauman, government relations director at the Federation for American Immigration Reform, which supports immigration restrictions. “Keep in mind though, even if that happens, Democrats and activists will still be shouting from the rooftops that it’s an ‘emergency’ that must be addressed by Congress. Hopefully the White House doesn’t take the bait.”
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said last week that she would not be willing to accept certain immigration policies just to strike a DACA deal with Trump.
“Our advocates for comprehensive immigration reform do not want us yielding on any of those points. We should have comprehensive immigration reform. We will move in that direction,” she said. “But we are not going to endanger families or have increased surveillance in our country.”
Instead, Democrats vowed at a news conference — held to mark the one-year anniversary of the House Dreamers bill — to push the Senate to act.
“We are going to keep pressuring and pressuring and pressuring because the public is on our side,” said Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.).
Polls have long shown the majority of Americans support letting DACA recipients stay in the country. Business executives, donors and Republican leaders all have urged Trump to show compassion for the Dreamers.
Even Mark Krikorian, who serves as executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies and favors broad immigration restrictions, said he could support protections if it came with “offsetting measures” and oversight.
For years, Trump has offered legislative proposals that would give Dreamers permanent legal protections in exchange for some of his hardline immigration priorities, including cuts to legal immigration and border wall funding. But the offers have gone nowhere.
He has faced opposition from both sides of the issue — immigration hawks accuse him of going against his own campaign promise and immigrant advocates claim he is not sincere in his efforts to provide permanent legal status for Dreamers.
“The administration plays with people’s lives for political expediency,” Kumar said. “They see DACA as currency.”
His proposal to protect Dreamers in exchange for $25 billion for a southern border wall died in Congress. But he continues to mention the possibility of a deal, most recently when he met with senators, including Lindsey Graham, who has long pushed for a massive rewrite of the nation’s immigration laws, at the White House in March.
At that meeting, Graham, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee and a Trump ally, presented the president with a series of DACA proposals, including those that would protect all immigrants eligible for the program. Trump told Graham and other Republican senators that he wanted to wait until after the Supreme Court ruling to try to make a deal.
It’s a message Trump signaled on Twitter in November, as the Supreme Court held oral arguments on the case: “If Supreme Court remedies with overturn, a deal will be made with Dems for them to stay!”