WASHINGTON — The government is set to run out of money on Feb. 8 unless Congress passes another short-term spending bill, but the fate of undocumented immigrants brought to the country as children threatens to derail those negotiations once again.
Last month, the government briefly shut down when Senate Democrats voted against a short-term spending bill because it didn’t include legal protections for 1.8 million undocumented immigrants who came to the U.S. as children.
The immigrants, nicknamed “DREAMers,” received deportation protection under an Obama-era program called Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals. But President Trump announced in September that he was ending the program and gave Congress until March 5 to come up with a legislative solution. There is bipartisan agreement that there need to be protections for the group, however what else the bill should include is still very much up for debate.
Democrats voted to re-open the government last month after Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said he intended to bring immigration legislation to the floor after Feb. 8 — so long as the government stays open. Assuming GOP leaders are able to muscle enough votes to keep the government funded this week, McConnell is likely to bring some immigration bill to the floor this month. But what that bill ends up looking like is anybody’s guess.
Here are the main immigration proposals being discussed at the White House and in Congress:
The Trump plan
The White House plan would provide a path to citizenship for up to 1.8 million undocumented immigrants who came to the U.S. as children. That number is more than double the number of “DREAMers” who qualified for the Obama-era program. However, in exchange the Trump administration has asked for $25 billion to build a wall along the southern border. The White House plan would result in at least a 25% reduction of legal immigration because it would end the diversity visa lottery and drastically narrow family-based immigration.
When White House adviser Stephen Miller presented the plan to congressional staffers and Trump allies and surrogates last month, he pitched it as a compromise. But so far, the plan seems to only have inflamed the right and left. Many Democrats say the plan goes way too far in curbing of legal immigration, while hard-line conservatives say they’re uncomfortable with the proposed path to citizenship.
The hardliner plan
Some conservatives are viewing the DACA negotiations as an opportunity to get nearly every immigration enforcement measure they’ve ever wanted. That idea is brought together in a bill filed by Rep. Bob Goodlatte, R-Va., chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, and Rep. Michael McCaul, R-Texas, chairman of the House Homeland Security committee.
The “Securing America’s Future Act” mirrors the White House proposal by funding the border wall, ending the diversity visa program, and limiting family-based immigration. But it also cracks down on so-called “sanctuary cities” that do not fully cooperate with federal immigration enforcement efforts; requires employers to use the E-Verify system to check the immigration status of job applicants; provides funding to hire 10,000 new federal immigration agents; and cuts at least 200,000 green cards a year given to foreigners.
In exchange, the bill would provide temporary legal status to fewer than 800,000 DREAMers, requires them to renew their protections every three years, and provides no pathway to citizenship for them.
The progressive option
On the other end of the spectrum, some liberals are pushing for something far simpler: protections for DREAMers and nothing else.
That is the premise behind Democrats who are pushing for the DREAM Act, a bill that has been introduced since 2001 that gave this population of young undocumented immigrant their name. First filed by Sens. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., and Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, the bill allows nearly all undocumented immigrants brought to the country before their 18th birthday to become U.S. citizens after a 13-year waiting period.
That proposal took center stage during an on-camera White House meeting in January when Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., asked Trump if he would support a “clean” version of the DREAM Act. The president said he would “like to do that,” before quickly being reined in by House Majority Leader Rep. Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., who clarified that the president needed border security in exchange for any protections for DREAMers.
The bipartisan plans
For any bill to be signed into law it must get bipartisan support in the Senate. While Republicans have enough cushion in the House to pass legislation without a single Democrat, in the Senate legislation requires 60 votes to pass. The Senate GOP has a 51-49 majority so they’ll need at least nine Democrats to support any legislation. There have been various bipartisan coalitions in both the House and Senate which have attempted to create compromise legislation, though so far none of them seem to provide enough immigration enforcement to get the White House on board.
Some of the former “Gang of Eight” members who came up with a comprehensive immigration reform bill in 2013 have gotten back together and hashed out a compromise that addresses the “four pillars” the White House is calling for: Protections for the DREAMer population, some funding for border enforcement, and changes to the visa lottery and family-based immigration. The proposal being touted by Durbin and Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., could have close to enough support to pass the Senate but the White House has dismissed it as dead on arrival.
There’s also a more narrow bill in both the House and Senate that would address protections for "a little more than 1.8 million" DREAMers and border security, according to Sen. Chris Coons, D-Del., one of the leading sponsors of this approach. The bill would bolster use of technology for border security and call on the Homeland Security secretary to submit a border security strategy to Congress within a year for review. The bill does not deal with family-based migration or the visa lottery system, both provisions Trump has insisted be included.
The House version of the bill — introduced by Reps. Will Hurd, R-Texas, and Pete Aguilar, D-Calif., — has more than 50 bipartisan co-sponsors. Sens. John McCain, R-Ariz., and Coons announced the Senate version Monday. Coons told reporters he saw the bill as the minimum that should be passed and would be open to adding provisions to deal with other issues.
The punt plan
Some lawmakers are discussing the possibility of extending the March 5 deadline to buy more time to hash-out a deal.
“That’d be a real loss. But that’s probably where we’re headed, OK?” Graham told Politico. Other lawmakers pushed back saying that Congress needed to work under the deadline the president had originally given.
Coons described it as “plan z” and said it was a “terrible idea.”
Still others are pointing to the courts as a reason to delay any action. A federal judge in California ordered the Department of Homeland Security to resume DACA, the program at the core of the ongoing battle.
The department is now operating DACA, waiting for the Supreme Court to issue the final verdict on its legality. That means the program may survive until sometime this summer, the earliest the court could rule, even without Congressional action.