Democrats and Republicans both want immediate congressional action on immigration. For this to happen, they each need to come to terms with current practical political realities. The only way any bill could move in Congress is if Republicans recognize that an immigration bill will need more than enforcement provisions, and if Democrats realize that it would be more productive to support a feasible bill like the Republican Recognizing America’s Children Act than committing to the Dream Act.
Only then could a mutually agreeable package move forward.
The RAC Act is uniquely situated as the feasible answer for Dreamers. It is a conservative plan that rigorously vets Dreamers, requires they work, graduate with a college degree or serve in the military, keep a clean record. It takes more than ten years before they are eligible for citizenship.
Most Republicans favor protecting Dreamers from deportation. In fact, according to a Morning Consult/Politico poll, nearly three out of four Trump voters want to provide legal status to Dreamers. So, while the RAC Act may not be the pressing priority for Republicans that enforcement is, passing it is fully consistent with Republican principles. And since enforcement alone is a losing strategy in the Senate, the politics make protection for Dreamers necessary if the Republicans want any bill to move forward.
In order for Republicans to reach the 60 votes they need to move an enforcement bill, they will need to bring some Democrats to the negotiating table. This, of course, hinges on the assumption that Democrats would be willing to negotiate.
Many Democrats believe that the best they can hope for is the preservation of the status quo while the government is controlled by Republicans. But immigration requires a different strategy for Democrats. That is because when it comes to immigration, the biggest threat to the status quo does not come from a bill in Congress; it comes from the courts.
Officials from 10 states have threatened to file a lawsuit to strike down the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program if the administration doesn’t kill it by early September. And, with the courts likely to strike down DACA — especially if the Department of Justice does not defend the program — merely preserving the status quo requires congressional action.
But congressional action is impossible for the Democratic minority, unless they are willing to negotiate. They must choose between either backing an ideologically pure bill with no path for becoming law, or a feasible package that could put up to 2 million undocumented immigrants on a path to citizenship paired with some enforcement provisions. If they commit to nothing less than the Dream Act and no legislation passes, Democrats would find themselves in a tough spot when the administration starts deporting Dreamers. They will have to justify how they allowed this to happen, and the only answer would be that they gave up the best chance to protect Dreamers for the sake of symbolic purity.
Given that the two parties need each other, there should be a path forward by negotiating a mutually agreeable compromise. Yet the politics preclude any bill if either party stubbornly acts as if it has more political leverage than it does.
Republicans could easily overplay their hand if they commit to enforcement first, and Dreamers later. An enforcement-only bill could never muster 60 votes. Neither would such a bill be practical with the Sept. 5 deadline looming for the lawsuit against DACA.
Democrats would undoubtedly overplay their hand if they demand the aptly named Dream Act as the bill, especially since the White House has already indicated it will not sign the Dream Act if it ever passed Congress. But even passing in Congress is unlikely when all seven previous iterations of the Dream Act have failed.
Introducing the Dream Act is a positive symbol — but at this point in time, it is not a feasible solution. If DACA were safe, holding out for the Dream Act could be a good strategic option for Democrats. But with DACA under threat, such a course of action would put over 1 million people at risk.
While the RAC Act is not exactly what the Democrats want, it has a viable shot at being passed by Congress and signed by the president. This would still be a major legislative accomplishment. The minor concessions by both sides would be well worth it.
Jeremy L. Neufeld is the immigration policy fellow at the Niskanen Center. His work focuses on employment-based immigration, guest worker programs, and the economic effects of immigration reform.
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