The Dreamer “Deal” Is Falling Apart

The Republicans want more. Chuck Schumer is mad. It is unclear what Trump is doing.

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Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Charles Grassley speaks on Capitol Hill in Washington on March 9, 2016.

Andrew Harnik/AP

One would be forgiven for thinking Tuesday’s Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on the expiring Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program brought good news for the prospects of its legislative replacement.

“First and foremost,” Iowa Sen. Chuck Grassley, the chairman of the committee, said in his opening remarks, “any potential deal on DACA has to include robust border security, and by that, I don’t mean a wall.”

This was the quote that garnered the most coverage and inspired some optimistic tea leaf reading. If congressional Republicans weren’t going to insist on a border wall as part of a deal to protect Dreamers, as per the “deal” Democratic leaders struck with President Trump last month, then a Dreamer-saving compromise would be much more assured.


But the wall isn’t shaping up to be the problem. The problem is what Grassley brought up a few seconds later.


“Second, and equally as important as robust border security,” he said, “we’ve got to make sure any deal includes meaningful interior enforcement.”

This is a development that Dreamers themselves have been concerned about since Democrats announced they would engage with the president to find a replacement for DACA. As the New York Times reported over the weekend, Dreamers fear that their “own long-term safety might be secured only in exchange for an increased threat of deportation for their undocumented parents and friends who do not qualify for such protections under the program.” The latest version of the DREAM Act could secure green cards for 1.5 million people. But if such a deal increases the likelihood of deportation for the vast majority of the nation’s roughly 11 million undocumented immigrants, it’s not exactly a feel-good trade.


The problem with making any handshake agreement with Trump, as House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer did last month, is that he will most likely change his mind once he finds himself in a roomful of different people with different demands. That meeting took place Monday night, when Trump hosted a dinner with congressional Republicans who expect much more out of a DACA deal. Trump surely wanted to win that room, too.


The agreement Trump made with Schumer and Pelosi—so they thought—would have been to pass the DREAM Act in exchange for non-wall border security measures. You know, drones and lasers and radar gizmos and stuff. But according to Arkansas Sen. Tom Cotton, an immigration hawk who was at the dinner on Monday night, “the president was very clear” that any deal should only pertain to those Dreamers who have a DACA permit today,” a significantly lower number than the amount that would be covered under the DREAM Act, and that “it ought to include some kind of enhanced measures, whether it’s on the border or interior enforcement or what have you.” As Georgia Sen. David Perdue, a fellow immigration hawk who’s co-sponsored a bill with Cotton to reduce legal immigration, told me Tuesday, it was clear that any Dreamer deal he’d be willing to support would encompass “enforcement” on both the border and the interior.


Ratcheting up the deportation apparatus to a new level is not what congressional Democrats signed up for when they engaged President Trump in finding a DACA replacement.

Connecticut Sen. Chris Murphy told me Tuesday that an insistence on ramped-up interior enforcement would be “a problem” for his caucus. “I’m not sure that you can get much tougher interior enforcement than you have today,” he said, “as we’re watching pretty arbitrary deportations happen all across our country.” When I asked Hawaii Sen. Mazie Hirono what would constitute a bridge too far for Democrats, she said any give-and-take needs to be kept “in proportion.” As she pointed out, Republicans are starting to ask for all of the border security and interior enforcement measures included in the failed 2013 comprehensive immigration bill, in exchange for far fewer of that bill’s protections for undocumented immigrants. “I think, as [Illinois Democratic Sen.] Dick Durbin says, that is way too much,” Hirono told me.


During his Tuesday press conference, Schumer seemed peeved but not entirely surprised that the president and congressional Republicans may not be honoring the agreement he thought he’d reached with Trump.

“If the president is changing his view, he should tell us,” Schumer said. I asked him if the push for tougher interior enforcement, specifically, would be a problem.

“Yes,” he said. “We were explicit at the meeting that interior enforcement was not part of this deal. … If they’ve changed their position, America needs to know about it.”

Even if the Senate were able to resolve this debate later this fall, the bill would still run into further problems in the House. Conservatives within the House GOP are insisting that the wall be included in any deal to protect Dreamers, on top of all the other border security and interior enforcement provisions that Republican senators are demanding. While House Speaker Paul Ryan wouldn’t need the votes from his party’s conservative flank to pass a bipartisan deal, he’s not going to try to pass a bill without them. As Politico notes, “when Ryan became speaker, he promised his right flank that he would never make them vote on an immigration bill that doesn’t have the support of a majority of the majority.” Putting a Dreamers bill to the floor that conservatives don’t support could cost him his job.

The Dreamers “deal” that never truly existed is now in the same sort of legislative peril that led President Obama to use executive action to protect Dreamers in the first place. Our president had a nice dinner with Schumer and Pelosi, whose company he clearly enjoys more than that of Paul Ryan or Mitch McConnell, and shook hands on something before thinking through the politics. Now the politics are happening.