Are ‘800,000 Youngsters’ Just Pawns in Trump’s Immigration Battle?

Wrangling over a congressional compromise is threatening to turn DACA beneficiaries, who came to the U.S. illegally before their 16th birthdays, into bargaining chips.

At 26, Carlos Adolfo Gonzalez has two master’s degrees. But his future as an American is about to be subjected to congressional horse-trading over the future of American immigration policy.

Gonzalez came to the United States from the Dominican Republic at age 11, held down a demanding job to afford out-of-state tuition at a community college, and graduated Phi Beta Kappa in 2014 from Amherst College. The summer after he got into Amherst, President Barack Obama unveiled Deferred Action for Childhood arrivals, a program that would let him work legally, travel, and live with a sense of security.

For Raymond Partolan, DACA was a chance to emerge from the shadows in which he’d lived since his parents informed him, at age 10, that he was in the United States illegally. The Filipino-born Partolan graduated at the top of his class and earned a full scholarship to college. He got side jobs at local restaurants, where he found bosses who didn’t ask about his immigration status.

Partolan and Gonzalez are two of nearly 800,000 undocumented immigrants who entered the United States as children—colloquially known as “DREAMers”—protected from deportation by DACA. It’s a program that exercises “prosecutorial discretion” to shield DREAMers from expulsion, and President Donald Trump is slated to announce a full rollback of the program.

The Daily Beast confirmed a Sunday Politico report that the White House plans to roll back DACA after a six month grace period designed to encourage Congress to craft their version of the program, which critics have derided as an unconstitutional end-run around the legislature—and which, as an executive action by Trump’s predecessor, exists only at the mercy of the president.

Trump is scheduled to officially announce the policy on Tuesday, kicking off an effort by congressional Republicans to address an issue that deeply divides the party. But murmurs of a legislative compromise are already taking shape, and the resulting wrangling over that compromise threatens to turn DACA beneficiaries, who came to the U.S. illegally before their 16th birthdays, into bargaining chips in a bitter fight over reform of the U.S. immigration system.

It’s an ironic twist for Gonzalez, who did a fellowship in Congress after graduating from college, putting him at the center of the legislative body to which his fate would fall a few years later.

“To walk in [the congressional] halls, it was a little bit ironic, because in some ways I had more access than many American citizens,” Gonzalez told The Daily Beast.

Partolan, who works at an immigration law firm in Atlanta and hopes to attend law school, also has a close-up view of the legal system on which his future in the country depends. “My clients are in deportation proceedings, and I have to think about what would happen if i get put into deportation proceedings,” he said in an interview.

For both of them, the prospects of deportation are even more real than they were before they received DACA status. Applicants for the program must turn over significant amounts of information to the federal government—information that, some worry, can now be used by law enforcement to root out former DACA beneficiaries if Congress doesn’t act to preserve the program.

“These 800,000 youngsters who are in the crosshairs are in a really, really vulnerable situation,” said Daniel Garza, the executive director of the LIBRE Initiative, a right-leaning group that works with the Latino-American community.

For Gonzalez, congressional wrangling over a potential DACA fix isn’t an issue of legislative horse-trading; it’s a matter of preserving the life that he’s built for himself in the United States. “For me to even imagine what my life would be like without the ability to work, the ability to drive... it’s unfathomable. I can’t even think about that,” Gonzalez said. “We have gotten a taste of what it’s like to live a normal life in the U.S.”

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Stories like his and Partolan’s are sure to animate congressional debates over whether to preserve DACA, and, if it is preserved, what tradeoffs need to be made to keep the program in place. Already, members of Congress and advocates on both sides of the immigration debate are trying to hammer out a legislative package that could keep DACA in place. But early indications are that any such package will also include additional restrictions on legal and illegal immigration long favored by Republicans, including Trump.

Mark Krikorian, the executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies, which advocates additional immigration restrictions, previewed a potential congressional compromise. He laid out what congressional sources say are likely avenues for shoring up DACA through legislation while enacting additional immigration restrictions that members of Trump’s hardline base have long sought.

“I’d be delighted for Congress to amnesty the DACAs, so long as the bill includes measures to contain the fallout from such an amnesty—namely, the RAISE Act to prevent downstream chain migration and E-Verify (plus Davis-Oliver) to prevent the amnesty from attracting new illegal immigration,” Krikorian said in an email.

Those two pieces of legislation—the RAISE Act and Davis-Oliver—are foremost on the agenda of congressional Republicans who favor additional immigration restrictions, and they don’t just target illegal immigration.

The RAISE Act squarely targets legal immigration, which it aims to halve over the next decade by limiting the issuance of green cards and imposing more stringent income and education requirements on those who attempt to come to the U.S. legally.

That bill’s sponsor, Sen. Tom Cotton (R-AR), is already floating a legislative compromise: give DREAMers green cards through a congressional fix that also imposes the legal immigration restrictions in his legislation. “We ought to take care of them,” Cotton told the Washington Examiner of DACA beneficiaries. “In any legislative fix, I would like to see them receive a green card.”

A congressional Republican aide who works on immigration issues said a legislative deal that preserves DACA and advances the REINS Act is a possible piece of compromise legislation if Trump confirms the six-month phase-out plan on Tuesday as expected.

But the details of any actual immigration proposal are far from certain, another Republican aide said. “There are a lot of moving parts on this at the moment,” that aide told The Daily Beast. “Nobody will have a clear picture until the members are all able to discuss it face to face.”

Top Republicans seem to be on board with preserving DACA in some form—in addition to Cotton, Speaker Paul Ryan has voiced support for some version of the program—but some sense that, with Democrats vehemently in favor of its preservation, there may be room to extract some concessions on long held immigration priorities.

Democrats, sensing political advantage and an opportunity to divide the GOP on a major wedge issue, are happy to put the onus on Republicans. “Dems will of course push it hard but it’s ultimately up to [the] GOP,” a Democratic leadership aide told The Daily Beast.

Another piece of legislation, mentioned by Kirkorian, that could make its way into that compromise is Rep. Raul Labrador’s Davis-Oliver Act, named after two California police officers killed by undocumented immigrants.

That measure would step up interior enforcement of immigration laws and deportation of those in the country illegally. It would also withhold federal grant money from “sanctuary cities” that refuse to assist in federal immigration enforcement efforts.

A potential congressional avenue for measures to address DACA and other federal immigration laws is legislation to extend funding for the federal government, which the House is scheduled to take up this month.

Already, Rep. Adam Schiff (D-CA) has crafted language that would block the Trump administration, at least in the near term, from deporting undocumented immigrants once their DACA status expires. Schiff plans to introduce an amendment to government funding legislation barring the administration from using any federal funds for such purposes.

The funding bill will likely be the source of legislative wrangling over appropriations for Trump’s proposed wall along the southern border, another potential avenue for DACA horse-trading. But according to Alex Nowrasteh, an immigration policy expert at the libertarian Cato Institute, a package of restrictionist immigration reforms might be a hard sell even with DACA beneficiaries as legislative bargaining chips.

“Senator Cotton and President Trump intend to trade a DREAM Act in exchange for a full border wall, mandatory E-Verify, the RAISE Act’s cut in legal immigration, and a wishlist of other anti-immigration policies. Not only is it cruel to use DREAMers as pawns, but nativists will never get that deal,” Nowrasteh said in an email. “At best, this is a just a cynical delaying strategy to prevent any DREAM Act. At worst, it’s a naive attempt to hold DREAMers hostage for an impossible legalization.”

David Leopold, an attorney who chairs the firm Ulmer & Berne’s immigration practice, called it “unconscionable” that Congress would use DREAMers as a bargaining chip in legislative fights over immigration. “They’re in for a big fight,” he said of Republicans looking to use a DACA fix to advance separate immigration priorities.

But some who support a path to citizenship or permanent residency for DREAMers and other undocumented immigrants see such legislative wrangling as an unfortunate way to prod Congress into addressing an issue that has persistently dogged policymakers—and prolonged a Kafkaesque immigration system that critics say has been in need of a wholesale revamp for decades.

“President Trump has forced action on this matter,” Garza said in an interview. “Maybe, just maybe, in a twisted way, this is what we need to get something done on this issue.”

Garza bristled at the characterization of DREAMers as “bargaining chips” in an interview on Monday, but acknowledged that DACA beneficiaries are in the unfortunate position of having their ability to remain in the country held hostage to congressional negotiating over such a contentious issue.

“Bargaining chips is not a kind euphemism, but in a practical sense that’s exactly what we’re looking at,” he said. “This is probably what it’s going to take. Unfortunately you’re playing with the lives of children. But if this doesn’t get it done, we’re in a sad situation moving forward on immigration.”

Garza stressed that both Republicans and Democrats would need to give ground on their legislative priorities to achieve some sort of compromise that preserves DACA in the long term. Doing so will require addressing issues that lawmakers of both parties have struggled to resolve for years.

“Don’t blame Trump,” as one Republican congressional aide put it. “Blame the decades of policymakers who refused to touch this issue with a 10-foot pole.”

For DACA beneficiaries, blame is beside the point. Partolan remembers being stopped at a police checkpoint while driving to get groceries shortly before receiving DACA protection. The police officer asked for his driver’s license. Partolan, now 24, handed over a driver’s license from the Philippines, a country he hadn’t been to since coming to the U.S. at 1 year old. The policeman told him to get a Georgia state driver’s license before letting him go with a warning. But Partolan couldn’t do that: As an undocumented person, he wasn’t eligible for a license from his home state.

Going back to that state of legal limbo is simply unconscionable, he says. And not least because he considers himself an American.

He told The Daily Beast, “Georgia is the only home I’ve ever known.”

—With additional reporting by Andrew Desiderio