The Immigration Debate: Easy to Fix or Impossible to Solve?

If you tune into any major news network, you’ll hear about the immigration quagmire facing the Trump Administration and Congress. Political pundits are likely to tell you there’s an easy solution: Democrats achieve deportation protection for dreamers and, in exchange, Republicans get the border wall. The immigration debate has always been framed as Democrats seeking legalization and a pathway to citizenship versus Republicans insisting on more stringent border security and interior enforcement. The debate is obviously not that simple or even bipolar, and with many issues in play, it is difficult to see an immigration deal being reached before the new February 8th budget deadline.

While the give and take between legalization and enforcement measures is black and white to some, there are still related questions to resolve. For the Democrats, how should a legislative solution to preserve the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program be structured? Is the DACA fix simply protection from deportation or should it create a mechanism for dreamers to achieve legal permanent resident (LPR) status and/or eventually U.S. citizenship? And perhaps more importantly, how is the dreamer population defined? Does it include the one third of the estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants living in the U.S. who were under the age of 18 when they arrived, or only the 700,000 individuals who are currently protected under the existing DACA program?

Just as many questions remain on the other side of the aisle. Are all Republicans supportive of a physical wall along the southern border, or will moderates who would rather deploy sophisticated surveillance technologies or hardliners seeking to increase the number of Customs and Border Protection (CBP) agents derail President Donald Trump from succeeding on his most prominent campaign pledge? Legislatively, is a win simply achieving an authorization to construct the border wall, or are appropriations also required for the rank and file to swallow DACA? And finally, how necessary are other immigration reforms, for example, modifications to the Diversity Visa Lottery program and chained migration, to securing the support of the president and more hawkish members of the GOP caucus?

Policy questions aside, immigration debates have always triggered fierce passion and politics, most recently prompting a three-day government shutdown. Many pro-immigration organizations are frustrated Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) agreed to reopen the government with only a promise by Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) that the Senate will vote on some immigration bill of unknown parameters, with no guarantee of a House vote and ongoing uncertainty regarding the president’s position. Outside of Washington, the shutdown aftermath appears to be a Democratic base that feels let down by its leadership in Congress. But come November, will voters still remember a three-day shutdown that coincided primarily with a weekend? And when the polls close, which party will be left holding the bag on DACA?

In the halls of Congress, Leader Schumer’s deal with Leader McConnell has also led to some splintering in the Democratic caucus seen as between senators who are vulnerable in the 2018 midterms and others seeking credit that would bolster their prospective 2020 presidential campaigns or political profiles. Speculation is high that Leader Schumer saw no other short-term strategy that would lead Democrats both out of the shutdown and to a clear immigration deal. However, it is also possible what is being portrayed as the Democratic leader’s moment of weakness could actually be longer-term strategic political calculation aimed at helping both vulnerable Democratic incumbents and rising stars in the party.

To elaborate, immediately following the shutdown, details of the “cheeseburger summit” at the White House began to emerge. Just hours before the shutdown, Leader Schumer reportedly offered the president $25 billion towards the border wall – well above the $18 billion most recently requested by the White House and the $1.6 billion included in the House and Senate Fiscal Year (FY) 2018 Homeland Security Appropriations Bills. Because no deal was struck, Leader Schumer has since rescinded that offer. In retaliation, the White House has indicated that bipartisan proposals previously under consideration, such as the one championed by Senators Lindsey Graham (R-SC) and Dick Durbin (D-IL) and a separate measure led by Representatives Will Hurd (R-TX) and Pete Aguilar (D-CA), are off the table. Given the traditional need to balance legalization and border security, it’s unlikely the president would have ever seen legislation more favorable to his immigration priorities in this political environment. Further, this tit for tat appears to have backed Democrats and Republicans further into their respective corners.

Without any guidance from the White House on policy and facing new concerns about Senate negotiations on a new immigration bill, some House Republicans have increased their pressure on House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI) to hold a vote on a partisan immigration bill sponsored by Representatives Bob Goodlatte (R-VA), Mike McCaul (R-TX), Raul Labrador (R-ID), and Martha McSally (R-AZ). While this bill includes a DACA fix, it is also loaded with a number of highly conservative provisions on mandatory worker verification, sanctuary cities, asylum thresholds, and significant cuts to legal immigration. Moreover, this raises the question of House passage and rules out action in the Senate, where Republicans hold just a 51-seat majority.

While most of the post-shutdown blame for the stalemate has been attributed to Leader Schumer, tensions have also been aimed at Speaker Ryan, whose caucus is just as, if not more, divided across the spectrum on immigration. The fractious GOP caucus rallied behind Speaker Ryan’s refusal to negotiate on immigration during the shutdown, but his leadership will continue to be tested in the days ahead. In fact, how Speaker Ryan navigates the next several weeks could define the rest of his speakership and impact his broader political future. In recent comments, Speaker Ryan has seemed to suggest his personal views would favor a DACA fix, potentially placing him at odds with the far-right wing of his caucus, which has made clear it will outright reject any proposal that gains bipartisan traction in the Senate. Additionally, even though the White House has alluded to a proposed legislative framework that includes a pathway to citizenship and significant border security appropriations, it remains unclear if the official release of the president’s proposal will provide Speaker Ryan and House Republicans the political cover they crave or instead just fan the flames.

So where do we go from here? The dynamics on both sides of Capitol Hill make it seem the chances of designing an immigration compromise that can pass both the House and Senate and appease the president – all in a matter of just two weeks – are slim. However, Democrats are continuing to negotiate and reassure their base with the perception that they are working hard to protect the dreamers. But if negotiations fail, is it possible that Leader Schumer may have so masterfully created a scenario in which President Trump will be the one forced to make the first move on DACA or else suffer the consequences? And without something he can call a “big, beautiful wall?”

As a reminder, when the president announced his intentions to wind down the DACA program last September, he provided a six-month window for Congress to act, leading the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) to arbitrarily impose a March 5th deadline. Since then, a court has acted to temporarily breathe new life in to DACA, and public opinion has only surged behind the dreamers, ramping up the urgency for government to act. By letting the March 5th deadline pass without action in Congress, President Trump could potentially find himself in a position to begin deporting dreamers. Of course, this is likely to appeal to the president’s base, but the deportation of dreamers could energize independents and Democrats just ahead of the midterm elections. In a DACA fallout, the plight of dreamers would undoubtedly be a part of almost every Democratic stump speech on the trail. Additionally, Republicans in congressional districts with growing Hispanic populations could see their vulnerability in 2018 skyrocket.

What would President Trump do in this scenario? In the face of political pressure, would he extend the arbitrary deadline for a legislative fix for DACA? Alternatively, would the president consider issuing an executive order, similar to the one signed by President Barack Obama that created the DACA program, offering legal protection for dreamers? These are unusual times and it may still be too soon to tell, but maybe this was Leader Schumer’s dare all along.