President Donald Trump’s decision Tuesday to phase out the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals immigration policy opened the door for legislative deal making. And no proposed trade has been more widely discussed than one in which Trump gets funding for his beloved border wall in exchange for permanent legal protections for the so-called DREAMers.
There are just two major hitches: Democrats aren’t biting and, more significantly, neither are DACA recipients.
Those recipients, along with immigration reform advocates, have been lobbying lawmakers to reject any deal that would result in a border wall, Capitol Hill aides and activists have told The Daily Beast.
The DREAMers have done so despite the fact that such an arrangement would directly ensure that their legal status was no longer in limbo after Trump announced he would scrap the program that President Barack Obama began via executive action in 2012. And it’s not just in the halls of Congress where they’re stressing that point.
“I’m not going to step on top of my community to get ahead,” said Jose Aguiluz, a D.C. native who was brought by his family from Honduras when he was 15 years old and who received his DACA status in 2012.
Aguiluz, a nurse, was outside the White House on Tuesday to protest Trump’s decision. “By me trying to say, ‘Oh, let’s make a deal with the wall,’ it is like I’m stepping up on my community, my parents, uncles, and grandparents, that I’m putting them down so that I can get ahead,” he said. “That’s unfair and it’s not American.”
Nearby stood Carlos Arellano, who was brought to the United States by his parents from Mexico when he was 15 and received DACA protection at age 26.
“DACA changed my life completely,” he said, explaining how the program allowed him to pursue a nursing degree.
A stethoscope rested on Arellano’s shoulders and a pained look showed on his face. He was nine months away from getting that degree but wouldn’t take a deal that could ensure its usage if that deal involved funding a border wall.
“DACA shouldn’t be used as a political football,” he said. “They are playing with the future of young, very bright immigrants like myself.”
The refusal of DACA recipients to sign off on a border-wall exchange raises the stakes around a dramatic, fast-moving attempt to piece together narrowly tailored immigration reform.
On Tuesday, Trump gave lawmakers an effective deadline. He didn’t rescind DACA immediately. Instead, he offered a six-month off-ramp for the program, with a smaller timeframe for current recipients to renew their status.
In doing so, he challenged lawmakers to craft a bill that will fill the void that he had created.
It’s a tall order.
Hardline immigration hawks in the Republican Party have already signaled opposition to any form of legislation that would give legal protections to undocumented Americans, while Democrats have said they will not engage in talks that would effectively turn DACA recipients into bargaining chips.
“First, you cannot reward an immoral act with a concession. Who knows what Trump will do next?” said Ron Klain, a longtime Democratic operative who is a forceful immigration reform advocate. “Second, there’s no legitimate argument for denying status to these people here, not by choice, who have been law-abiding... Third, there’s no rationale for using taxpayer money for an ineffective $20 billion monument to Trump’s ego. Trump said taxpayers wouldn’t have to fund it. He should be held to that.”
But despite the seemingly wide gulf between the two sides, the construct of a deal began to emerge Tuesday amid the frantic fallout of the Trump announcement.
Numerous Republican lawmakers, including many who had supported lawsuits against Obama’s DACA program and others who had voted against the last attempt to give protections to DREAMers, called for quick action to protect the 800,000 or so recipients who were affected by Tuesday’s decision.
Many insisted that some sort of border security or crackdown on undocumented immigration should accompany whatever arrangement gets pieced together.
“I don’t believe DACA will be the only thing that will be addressed because there’s been a long-standing conviction I think of most members of Congress that our immigration system is broken,” Senate GOP Whip John Cornyn (R-TX) told The Daily Beast. “And I think we need to start with border security and interior enforcement to regain the public’s confidence.”
But Democrats on the Hill began signaling comfort with such trade-offs. One top aide said the party could stomach more border security measures in exchange for DACA protections. Those could include more drones, fencing, and sensors, but not a “presidential vanity project” border wall.
“We are open to security that makes sense,” the aide said, noting that the comprehensive immigration reform deal that passed the Senate in 2013 included some $40 billion for border security measures.
Still, there are questions. It’s not clear whether the White House would sign off on a deal that lacked money for a physical wall.
Attorney General Jeff Sessions hinted on Tuesday that there was no inclination within the administration to support a legislative replacement to Obama’s DACA executive action. But Trump confidants don’t necessarily see Sessions as setting policy. One senior official suggested that they’d defer to Congress on the final outcome. “The ball is in Mitch [McConnell] and [Paul] Ryan’s court,” the official said.
Whether advocates will sign off on a measure that includes even nominal enhancements in security and enforcement is similarly uncertain.
Cristina Jiménez, the executive director and co-founder of United We Dream, stressed on a conference call shortly after the DACA news came down that there should be no negotiating at all. Advocates, she said, “will demand a clear legislative solution” that entails re-applying the legal protections that were just taken away.
But others seemed shell-shocked by Tuesday’s news, to the extent that they seemed ready to welcome a resolution, even if it wasn’t perfectly tidy.
“It is going to be a long fight, just like it has always been with past bills,” said Missael Garcia, a 27-year-old DACA recipient who who helped run a construction crew in Baltimore.
Garcia carried a bullhorn with him as he led protests outside the White House. Tears streamed down his face as he hugged others around him.
“I had a feeling that this would be his decision,” he said of Trump. ”But hearing it and confirming it feels totally different than thinking that this might be the decision. My thinking was that he would end it and probably come up with a better solution. So who knows. We will see what happens after this.”