President Trump cast the debate to overhaul the nation’s immigration laws as the “last chance” for action as the Senate weighed competing proposals to legalize millions of young undocumented immigrants and fulfill his goal of bolstering U.S.-Mexico border security.
But another federal court ruling Tuesday regarding the legality of an Obama-era program shielding young foreign-born “dreamers” from deportation served as a reminder that Trump’s March 5 deadline for congressional action is mostly moot.
After months of anticipation sparked by Trump’s decision to end the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, the Senate debate on immigration sputtered at the start, with the chamber mostly dormant Tuesday as top party leaders negotiated which proposals might earn a vote.
“This is the debate they said they wanted,” Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said of Democrats. “I said we’d have an open and fair process. We’re trying to do that, and the sooner we get started the better because we’ll need to wrap this up this week.”
Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) agreed that the debate should be quick. “The sooner the better,” he said, adding later that if a bipartisan deal is able to get the requisite 60 votes to survive procedural challenges and pass: “Let it rip. Let’s go.”
McConnell tried to accelerate the debate by introducing a Republican proposal to punish cities that refuse to help enforce federal immigration laws. The move was blocked by Democrats who said the proposal would not address the more urgent legal status of dreamers.
The feeble launch of the debate showed yet again how immigration remains an intractable problem for Congress. Bipartisan negotiations — now under their third president — have failed to garner significant changes in the legal status of undocumented immigrants, how visas are granted to legal immigrants or how the nation protects the southern border.
In an early morning tweet, Trump said: “Negotiations on DACA have begun. Republicans want to make a deal and Democrats say they want to make a deal. Wouldn’t it be great if we could finally, after so many years, solve the DACA puzzle. This will be our last chance, there will never be another opportunity! March 5th.”
Winning support from Democrats will be key in the closely divided Senate, but Republicans complained that the other party was needlessly prolonging the debate.
“We’re all a little mystified on why the Democrats are refusing to have the debate and the votes they asked for,” said Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.).
Sen. Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.) shot back that his party was focused on writing bipartisan proposals instead of partisan plans destined to fail.
“How many bills would they like to see, bipartisan bills? I can give them two that we’ve already written, and there are others,” he said.
Seeking to amplify his concerns about the immigration showdown, Durbin cited the story of Chloe Kim, the Olympic snowboarder who won a gold medal Tuesday, and her father, Jong Jin Kim, who immigrated to the United States from South Korea.
“He didn’t have a college degree,” Durbin said. “He spoke a little English, but he carried a Korean-English dictionary with him. And he had about $300 in his pocket.”
Durbin added that Kim “might not have passed some of the merit-based tests that we’re hearing around here” from Republicans.
Most Republicans on Tuesday appeared to be rallying behind a proposal by Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa) and six other GOP senators that fulfills Trump’s calls to legalize 1.8 million dreamers, immediately authorizes spending at least $25 billion to bolster defenses along the U.S.-Mexico border, makes changes to family-based legal immigration programs and ends a diversity lottery system used by immigrants from smaller countries.
Schumer said the Grassley plan unfairly targets family-based immigration and that making such broad changes as part of a plan to legalize just a few million people “makes no sense.”
In a bid to soften Trump’s proposals and win over Democrats, Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) unveiled a watered-down version of the GOP proposal — but had not won support from members of either party by late Tuesday.
Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.), a longtime proponent of comprehensive immigration changes, said the Grassley proposal should be the focus of the Senate’s debate.
“What would make it better? If you took that bill and you changed it, how could you get 70 votes?” he asked. He told reporters that the “key” to winning over Democrats would be addressing what the legislation says about family-based immigration.
Schumer and other Democrats, meanwhile, voiced support for a plan by Sens. Christopher A. Coons (D-Del.) and John McCain (R-Ariz.) that would grant legal status to dreamers in the country since 2013 but would not immediately authorize money to build out southern border walls and fencing.
“It is my hope it’ll get a strong vote,” Coons said.
A federal judge on Tuesday temporarily blocked moves to end DACA — though he recognized that the administration “indisputably” has the authority to do so.
U.S. District Judge Nicholas Garaufis in New York wrote that the program “simply reflected the Obama Administration’s determination that DHS’s limited enforcement resources generally should not be used to deport individuals who were brought to the United States as children, met educational or military-service requirements, and lacked meaningful criminal records.” Thus, he said, the Trump administration was well within its rights to change tack. But Garaufis wrote that administration officials had not offered legally adequate reasons for doing so because they relied on an erroneous legal conclusion that the program was unconstitutional and illegal under federal law.
“Because that conclusion was erroneous, the decision to end the DACA program cannot stand,” Garaufis wrote.
Garaufis issued what is known as a preliminary injunction, which would keep DACA alive while the court case before him proceeded. A federal judge in California has issued a similar injunction, and the Supreme Court is expected this week to consider whether it will take up the fight over DACA.
Mike DeBonis contributed to this report.