With negotiations over a comprehensive immigration deal sputtering on Capitol Hill, lawmakers and advocates are growing reluctantly convinced that they will end up settling on an inglorious, legislative punt. Whether President Donald Trump would accept it, however, is an open question.
The punt proposal, which was first reported by Politico and is known in some quarters on Capitol Hill as “Plan Z,” would be to extend legal protections under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program (DACA) for a matter of years (two to three is now most often discussed) in exchange for a relatively small amount of border security funding.
It is not being discussed openly for fear that to do so would be to compromise one’s negotiating position when debating far more ambitious immigration policy. But, in private, the parties to the debate increasingly see it as the logical fallback.
“We are a ways away,” is how one senior Democratic Senate aide put it. “It is in the discussions but treated as an emergency fail safe.”
Virtually no one is excited by the prospect of a punt, least of all those inside the White House. Senior aides to the president who spoke to The Daily Beast this week all panned the idea, saying there was little to no appetite for accepting a DACA extension of two or three years. They argue that such a proposal should include a sizeable border-wall appropriation, border-security funding, and legal-immigration rollbacks that Democrats have thus far signaled as red lines and total non-starters
Chatting with reporters on Capitol Hill on Tuesday morning, White House Chief of Staff John Kelly said that President Trump won’t accept a short-term DACA fix from Congress. "What makes them act is pressure," Kelly said.
Rejecting a short-term deal, however, carries political risk, leaving the president blamed for both ending DACA—which provides legal protections for undocumented immigrants that were brought to America as minors—and refusing the one potential solution to its demise. It was President Trump, after all, who chose to phase out the program over the course of six months in response to legal challenges about its constitutionality. Since Trump’s action in September, recipients have been unable to renew their status and come March 5, DACA will be ended entirely.
Trump had hinted previously that he’d be open to extending the March 5 deadline. But the administration is now insisting that he won’t—and, perhaps, can’t—act unilaterally.
"As stated months ago, the deadline for a DACA resolution is March 5, 2018,” Department of Homeland Security’s Acting Press Secretary Tyler Q. Houlton emailed The Daily Beast. “Given the Attorney General’s determination that the previous DACA policy was likely unlawful and unconstitutional, the administration is fully committed to that deadline."
Without executive action, Congress will be left to find a resolution.
Currently, there are a handful of legislative proposals under consideration. They include the president’s framework—which would grant a pathway to citizenship for 1.8 million DACA recipients but also involves a dramatic restriction of the ability of legal immigrants to sponsor family members—and a recent proposal from Sens. Chris Coons (D-DE) and John McCain (R-AZ), that would exchange DACA protections for an investment in border security.
But few on the Hill are bullish on anything passing. The expectation, instead, is that the Senate will hold what are being called “show votes,” in which various bills are put on the floor and none end up clearing the 60-vote threshold needed in the Senate.
At that juncture, Plan Z would become the last option available.
While the administration may be opposed to the concept, it could be the only legislative proposal that they are given.
Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) is the office most closely tied to Plan Z. Graham’s office, which has been central to virtually all immigration-related discussions, would only say there is “nothing to report.” Democratic lawmakers seem less involved in the idea. One Senate Democratic aide argued that the party would have a harder time getting to yes on the fail safe idea for one central reason.
“It would be trading wall funding, which is permanent, for a temporary patch that still leaves DREAMers futures in limbo,” said the aide. “Are they gonna tear down those portions of the wall after three years?”
But advocates who have worked on immigration legislation for years regard these takes on Plan Z to be, merely, posturing. If the choice ultimately came down to passing a short-term fix versus letting DACA fully expire on March 5, the thinking goes, virtually everyone, including the president and even DACA advocates, would ultimately side with the former.
“A patch is a lot better than nothing,” said one top activist, who spoke on condition of anonymity to be candid about legislative goals and ambitions. “Let’s not kid ourselves. These kids are facing unemployment. That’s a big fucking deal. I know the narrative is about deportation. But not all of them will be exposed to that. All of them will be exposed to job loss.”