By: Valerie Ploumpis, National Policy Director
Uncertainty descended on Washington, DC last night when the White House instructed government agencies to prepare for yet another midnight shutdown because Congress has been unable to pass a budget. Many competing forces are at play — Republican budget hawks are angry about uncontrolled spending and some Democrats insist that Dreamers be protected.
The day prior was just as chaotic; House Leader Pelosi (D-CA) held an eight-hour filibuster during which she read letters from Dreamers about the impact that Trump’s immigration policies have had on their lives and families, and nearly 100 people were arrested in acts of civil disobedience in the US Capitol.
What’s on The Table Now
Equality California, along with a large coalition of progressive organizations, strongly supports the Dream Act (HR 3440), a proposal by Rep. Lucille Roybal-Allard (D-CA) that would provide an eventual path to citizenship. Technically the bill is bipartisan, because two Republicans are cosponsors. But the ugly political climate and Republican majorities in both houses of Congress have resulted in paralysis.
An alternative bipartisan bill, the Uniting and Securing America (USA) Act, was recently introduced in the House by Rep. Will Hurd (R-TX) and Rep. Pete Aguilar (D-CA), with its companion sponsored by Senators John McCain (R-AZ) and Chris Coons (D-DL). This proposal is far less generous, in that it would only provide Dreamers access to green cards. And it would authorize substantial spending so that DHS could secure “operational control” of the border by 2020. That said, the chairwoman of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus called the USA Act “fair and targeted legislation that provides Dreamers with certainty.”
Still other proposals are likely to emerge. According to press reports, Senator Jeff Flake (R-AZ), who announced his retirement a few months ago, said he is working on a ‘fulsome’ plan that would provide legal status for Dreamers, restrict family-based immigration laws, ban the diversity visa lottery, and increase spending on border security.
And Senate Majority Leader McConnell said that he would allow a series of votes on immigration-related bills on the Senate floor next week, though House Speaker Ryan pointedly did not make the same commitment, even after Minority Leader Pelosi goaded him to “man up.”
What’s At Stake in the Interim
At issue is the plight of approximately 800,000 Dreamers (undocumented young people whose parents brought them to the US before December 31, 2016 and before their 16thbirthday) whose lives were upended on September 5, 2017, when President Trump unexpectedly announced that he was canceling the program and would give Congress six months to find a solution.
Many rushed to renew their DACA (Deferred Action on Childhood Arrivals) status before an arbitrary 30-day deadline lapsed, but not all were eligible and others could not afford the reapplication fee. As a result, every single day for months, 122 DACA recipients lost their rights to legally drive, work or receive college financial aid. To date, nearly 19,000 young people found themselves forced into the shadows as Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents arrest and deport as they raid workplaces, farms, schools and courtrooms.
The White House’s position is murky. Though Trump has spoken empathetically about Dreamers, his own Chief of Staff John Kelly and Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen, also an immigration hardliner, have stated the president lacks the legal authority to alter his own deadline (March 6, 2018) a stance reportedly shared by others in the executive branch. And of course the official White House position on immigration was set forth by nativist House Political Adviser Stephen Miller (https://www.eqca.org/daca_negotiations/) and embraced by President Trump whose dark speeches ring with warnings about ‘alien criminals,’ drug dealers and gang members.
Legislative prospects for a lasting solution are also unclear. Two “Continuing Resolutions” to keep the government funded did not included a DACA reprieve, and neither does the two-year spending bill currently pending in Congress, even though public opinion polls show overwhelming support for allowing Dreamers to stay in the US.
Congressional Democrats are now in a difficult position. On the one hand, they have long called for a ‘clean’ Dream Act and seemingly have never had more leverage. On the other, the two-year budget bill contains funding for Democratic priorities including hurricane-ravaged Puerto Rico, Community Health Centers, the national opioid crisis, infrastructure, and an additional four years for CHIP (the Children’s Health Insurance Program). And naturally, voting ‘no’ would likely bring a government shutdown and expose Democrats to Trump’s accusations of putting immigrants’ needs ahead of Americans – just months from the midterm elections.
Implicitly acknowledging this dilemma, Leader Pelosi said yesterday, after her record-breaking filibuster, that she would not vote for the two-year spending bill unless a DACA fix were included. But, she added that she would not “whip” (essentially force) the 193-member House Democratic caucus to do the same. Immigrant activists were predictably furious.
Ideally, of course, Congress would adapt systemic immigration reform, an orderly process that would address the status of approximately 11 million undocumented people already in the United States, resolve the tension between ‘family-based’ and ‘merit-based’ immigration preferences, and establish more generous caps for asylum-seekers and refugees. Clearly, under the current Administration and given the mood of the country now, systemic reform of the US immigration system – long a priority of Equality California and other progressive organizations – is not a strong prospect.
Until then, Equality California is acutely concerned about the approximately 75,000 LGBTQ Dreamers who live in California and their families. LGBTQ people who are deported to “home countries” – places they may never have lived and have few connections – could find themselves with little to no legal rights and at risk for anti-LGBTQ violence, family rejection and societal prejudice. Nearly 80 countries criminalize same-sex relationships and many without explicit anti-LGBTQ laws are very dangerous.