The Art of the DACA Deal?

The Art of the DACA Deal?

Trump wants a DACA deal, but only if other people figure out what’s in it first.


Late Tuesday evening, a federal judge issued a temporary block on the Trump administration’s plans to dismantle DACA, or Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals. The Obama-era initiative granted some 700,000 young undocumented people short-term passes to live and work without fear of deportation, but Donald Trump killed the program last September. In his ruling, Judge William Alsup wrote that the University of California, which brought the legal challenge, was “likely to succeed on the merits of their claim that the rescission was arbitrary and capricious.” The injunction applies nationwide.

The ruling this week is just one victory in what will be an extended legal battle over the constitutionality of Trump’s attacks on DACA. While Alsup called for the Department of Homeland Security to “maintain the DACA program” and resume accepting renewal applications on DACA, the injunction doesn’t immediately change anything materially for young people. There is, as of today, no process to begin filing renewal applications again.

The ruling, meanwhile, comes amid urgent and heated negotiations in Washington, DC, over the fate of the hundreds of thousands DACA recipients. Every day since September, some 120 young people have lost the ability to live, work, go to school, and drive. Advocates estimate that more than 14,000 young people have already fallen out of DACA status since Trump’s decision to eliminate the program. Come March, immigration advocates expect that 1,000 people a day will lose their DACA protections.

Activists have pinned their hopes on Congress’s January 19 deadline to pass a continuing resolution. Because passing the continuing resolution requires Democratic support, immigration reform advocates see it as their best vehicle to attach a DACA fix.

On Tuesday afternoon Trump presided over what without him would have been a high-stakes immigration meeting. Lawmakers from both parties and houses of Congress gathered to discuss a deal to rescue DACA recipients. The meeting was bizarre and worrisome. While lawmakers politely debated via coded platitudes about immigration, the subtext of the policy details and political realities of immigration policy seemed to fly right over the president’s head. 

The president, at pains not only to beat back claims that he is suffering from early-onset dementia but also to show that he is a “very stable genius,” held court, calling on lawmakers to speak, engaging in jokey banter, and clearly making a strong effort to show that he was following the lines of discussion swirling around him. Instead, Trump appeared amenable to just about any deal the assembled group of congressional leaders wanted to send him. At different times he approved everything from a wholesale attempt at comprehensive immigration reform to a narrow, standalone “clean” DACA bill to protect just the young people who’ve enrolled in the deportation deferral program.

Even when members of his own party all but begged him to offer them some political direction, Trump contradicted himself. Over the course of the hour-long meeting, what became clear is the only conviction Trump has is that he wants a deal of some sort. As for what’s contained in it? That’s for other people to sort out.

“I think my positions are going to be what the people in this room come up with. I am very much reliant on the people in this room. I know most of the people on both sides,” Trump said on Tuesday. “And…what I approve is going to be very much reliant on what the people in this room come to me with. I have great confidence in the people. If they come to me with things that I’m not in love with, I’m going to do it because I respect them.”

And yet Republicans pleaded with Trump to take a stand on the issue. “Both the speaker and majority leader McConnell made crystal clear that they would not proceed with a bill on the floor of the Senate or the House unless it had your support, unless you would sign it. The lens we need to be looking through is not only what could we agree to among ourselves on a bipartisan basis, but what will you sign into law,” Republican Senator John Cornyn said at the meeting. 

“Very well said. One of the reasons I’m here, Chuck,” Trump said, while still apparently addressing Cornyn, “so importantly, is exactly that.”

Amid Trump’s own confusion, lawmakers did seem to agree on something of a framework for upcoming negotiations. Lawmakers seemed willing to attempt a two-phase solution. The first, smaller fix would provide DACA recipients in the country some permanent solution. The second, which Trump urged lawmakers to start on immediately after completing the first, would entail tackling the entirety of comprehensive immigration reform. Among those larger reforms the room agreed to revisit border security, family-based migration (which is the basis through which the majority of legal immigrants make their way to the United States), and the diversity visa lottery.

There is a real urgency to sort out a solution. After Trump rescinded DACA last September, he gave Congress a deadline of March 5 to find a permanent legislative fix for the 700,000 young undocumented people who would, as a result of his actions, be stripped of their status.

Immigrant-rights advocates say Tuesday’s ruling will not change their strategy. “Nothing stops us from continuing to ask Democrats to withhold their vote on a continuing resolution that doesn’t include the Dream Act,” United We Dream’s membership director Adrian Reyna, a DACA recipient, said on Wednesday. United We Dream is a nationwide network of immigrant young people that has been at the forefront of the DC-based effort to secure a DACA deal.

But, in the Trump meeting Tuesday, the room got bogged down in what that first smaller fix might look like. Mainstream immigration-reform advocates, with congressional Democrats, have been calling for a narrow “clean Dream Act,” but Republicans and even Trump himself have repeatedly said that they would not agree to any DACA bill that did not include beefed-up border security. As recently as December 29, Trump tweeted that “there can be no DACA without the desperately needed WALL at the Southern Border and an END to the horrible Chain Migration & Lottery System of Immigration etc.” On Friday, the White House sent over a list of demands that must be included in any DACA fix. Among them were calls for $18 billion to fund the construction of the border wall.

When California Democratic Senator Dianne Feinstein asked Trump, point blank, if he would support a “clean DACA bill now, with a commitment that we go into a comprehensive immigration reform procedure?” Trump responded, “Yeah, I would like—I would like to do that. Go ahead.” Republican Senator Kevin McCarthy jumped in, eager to correct the president, reminding him a “clean” bill must also include these other draconian rewrites of the immigration code. 

Elsewhere in the meeting, Trump even agreed to back a comprehensive immigration reform bill. Whether or not Trump knows it, comprehensive immigration reform has for the last 15 years implied a path to legal status and often citizenship for the nation’s 11 million undocumented immigrants. For just as long, it’s also been one of the hardest and most controversial topics for Congress to tackle.

“I’ll take the heat. I don’t care. I’ll take all the heat you want to give me. I’ll take the heat off the Democrats and the Republicans,” Trump said to Senator Lindsey Graham (R-SC), a longtime backer of comprehensive immigration reform.

Trump’s obvious disinterest in policy details aside, the nitty gritty is where a million young people’s lives will be decided. Because while the White House has attached a list of its must-haves to any DACA fix, advocates like Reyna with United We Dream have vowed not to budge in backing a bill that would allow for more immigration enforcement and thus endanger other immigrants in the larger undocumented community. When pressed about whether Reyna and other immigrant advocates might accept a compromise, Reyna demurred.

 “In order to protect Dreamers we don’t have to harm others,” Reyna said. “In principle that is how we are responding to these conversations. We will not stand for anything that jeopardizes the security of our parents. That is a non-starter for us.” 

One thing that both Trump and immigrant advocates seemed to agree on? That a bill can get done in the next week.

“Negotiations are accelerating,” said Frank Sharry, executive director for the immigration-reform advocacy organization America’s Voice. “There’s the real possibility of the president embracing a deal and helping sell it. And that makes the possibility of a deal coming together more probable than not.” 

With that Sharry sounded as optimistic as someone who has very different views on immigration. “I feel having the Democrats in with us is absolutely vital, because it should be a bipartisan bill. It should be a bill of love. Truly, it should be a bill of love, and we can do that,” Trump said on Tuesday.

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