Members of Congress will leave Washington for their holiday break on Friday without coming to any agreement on the future of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, the Obama-era program that shielded from deportation some seven hundred thousand undocumented immigrants who came to the U.S. as children. President Trump, in a concession to his anti-immigrant base, cancelled the program in September. But he also knew that daca and its beneficiaries, known as Dreamers, are broadly popular among Americans. To minimize the political fallout from the cancellation, Trump called on lawmakers to pass legislation to restore the protections he had just ended. He set a deadline of March 5th for Congress to act. “Trump created this crisis, set a date to push recipients off of a cliff, and then left it to Congress to prevent it,” Cecilia Muñoz, a former Obama official who helped develop the daca policy, told me.
Members of both parties have vowed to fix daca, but a concrete plan still hasn’t materialized. While the delays continue, more than a hundred Dreamers are losing their status every day, meaning, among other things, that they can no longer work legally in the U.S. The Democrats had promised to pass legislation before the end of the year to resolve the situation. And, despite a Republican-controlled Congress, they had leverage: Republicans need their votes in order to pass measures to continue to fund the government. Earlier this year, some high-profile Democratic senators—including Kamala Harris, Elizabeth Warren, and Cory Booker—expressed willingness to withhold those votes and force a government shutdown over daca. This week, however, it became clear that Democratic leaders weren’t yet willing to go that far. On Thursday, Congress passed a resolution to continue funding the government into January. In theory, this will give the Democrats another chance to tie daca to a future spending bill. But it nevertheless seemed like the Democrats had blinked. One immigrants-rights advocate told me, “At the end of the day, the Democrats always take the immigrant community for granted, and it’s the Dreamers who are shortchanged.”
The most likely path forward, if there is one, will be for Congress to pass a stand-alone measure to protect Dreamers. The template for such legislation would be the dream Act, a bill that has been introduced in the Senate more than five times since 2001, which would create a path to citizenship for Dreamers. Some veterans of immigration-policy battles in Washington, however, are skeptical that such a bill could pass in an election year. One former Republican congressional aide with years of experience on immigration issues told me that Democrats should have pressed harder to include a daca fix in a spending bill this year. “The Democrats wouldn’t have been held accountable for a shutdown, anyway,” the aide said. “And, politically, they have all the leverage. It’s the Republicans who are trying not to upset their base and to protect their moderates. I’m not sure the Democrats pushed this as far as they could have.” Dreamers and their advocates also feel a critical opportunity may be passing. “We’ll keep fighting, but if a dream Act isn’t passed this year, it definitely becomes harder in 2018,” Kamal Essaheb, of the National Immigration Law Center, told me.
Trump’s daca deadline coincides with congressional primary season. Many incumbent Republicans will need to shore up their bases of support on the right, and others will be facing Steve Bannon-inspired conservative challengers; they won’t want to appear too conciliatory on a contentious issue like immigration. “Everything’s harder in an election year,” the former congressional aide said. “If, this week, we were talking about tax reform, a daca fix, and funding the government, it would divide people’s attention on the big issues. In February, everyone will be talking about daca.” Last week, the White House announced that it would launch an aggressive new campaign, starting in 2018, to sway the public on the need to limit legal immigration. It’s a hard-line position that only the most conservative faction of the Republican Party supports, but it will heighten the pressure for Republicans open to a daca fix.
What a viable dream Act would look like still isn’t clear, either. Republicans will not support legislation unless it includes a raft of border-security measures, but Democrats remain adamant that many of these requests are too extreme. Immigration advocates have repeatedly called for a “clean dream Act”—a version of the bill that would make only limited concessions to enforcement and security measures. There is some middle ground that the two parties have staked out before, in 2013, when they were working toward a bigger deal on comprehensive immigration reform. Senator Dick Durbin, of Illinois, the Democrat who originally sponsored the dream Act in 2001, has been trying to gather support for a deal that would give protections to Dreamers in exchange for increases in the number of federal border agents and expanded funding for border-security technology. But he has not yet been able to secure enough Republican votes to get the bill through the Senate. In the House, a growing number of moderate Republicans who are facing tough reëlection fights—such as Ryan Costello, of Pennsylvania, and Scott Taylor, of Virginia—have expressed support for bipartisan negotiations, but they’ve yet to offer specifics. Earlier this month, thirty-four Republicans signed a letter to House Speaker Paul Ryan, urging him to act before the end of the year. “This is not a threat to leadership,”one of them said afterward. “If you talk to the average Republican in the House, they want to get something done,” the former aide said. “But the amount of pressure they’re feeling will also depend on whose district you’re in.”
On Tuesday, a bipartisan group of senators met at the White House with John Kelly, the President’s chief of staff and the former head of the Department of Homeland Security, to discuss a potential deal. One of the attendees was Jeff Flake, the Arizona Republican, who said afterward that Mitch McConnell, the Senate Majority Leader, had promised him there would be a vote on the Dreamer issue by mid-January, before Congress will hold another vote to continue to fund the government. Durbin attended the meeting, as did Lindsey Graham, the South Carolina Republican co-sponsoring the dream Act. Also in attendance were the Republicans Tom Cotton and David Perdue, who last winter sponsored a bill that would cut legal immigration.
In early December, a group of Dreamers set up a large white tent across from Paul Ryan’s office on the National Mall, in Washington, D.C. Inside, they have created what one of them, a twenty-six-year-old daca recipient named Adrian Reyna, who works for an immigrant-led group called United We Dream, described to me as a “war room.” Each day, hundreds of Dreamers gather there to plan public actions—rallies, sit-ins at lawmakers’ offices, press conferences. When Reyna and I spoke, on Tuesday, he and his colleagues were scheduled to visit thirty-five congressional offices that day. “We walk in, with sleeping bags and everything,” Reyna told me. “We go up to the staffer at the front desk and say, ‘Hi, I’m from your state, and I would qualify for the dream Act.’ You get the standard answer, which is, ‘Sorry, you should set up a meeting.’ At that point, people drop their sleeping bags and stay there.” When one group visited the office of Senator Bill Nelson, a Democrat from Florida who has publicly supported attaching some version of the dream Act to the funding negotiations, he came outside to chat. The group asked him if he would withhold his vote to fund the government in order to secure a “clean” dreamAct. “Nelson wouldn’t commit,” Reyna told me. “He called Durbin on the phone, to show that he’s friends with Durbin, to try to appease us. But we’re past the lip service. Our people know better by now.”