The 3 bills Congress could use to protect DACA recipients

By announcing Tuesday that it’s ending the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, the Trump administration threatened 800,000 unauthorized immigrants — and also Congress. The message to the legislature: Act in the next six months to protect young unauthorized immigrants who came to the US as children, or we’ll start pushing them back into the shadows.

The Trump administration appears to believe that Congress’s problem is that it’s lazy — that no one has bothered to think of a way to help DREAMers yet. That’s not true. Even before the administration’s threat, there were several different proposals to allow DACA recipients to stay in the US. The trouble isn’t a dearth of ideas; it’s a lack of consensus and political will.

Before Tuesday, there wasn’t a lot of urgency to passing any of those proposals. Now, with the clock ticking on a six-month deadline for DACA, members of both parties who don’t want to let DACA die need to figure out which bill they’re going to try to pass to save it.

There are three bills that have already been proposed to protect DACA recipients — and all three have some Republican support

The good news for DACA recipients is that there are a not-insignificant number of Republicans, in both chambers of Congress, who agree that something needs to be done to keep them from losing their work permits and deportation protections. The bad news is that there are at least 3 different ideas that have already been proposed for what that solution would be — and no one of them yet has a critical mass of Republican support.

The BRIDGE Act is the most conservative proposal on the table so far. It’s basically a congressional equivalent of DACA: It would allow the people who met the requirements of DACA to be protected from deportation and work legally in the US for the next three years.

The logic behind the bill is to give Congress three years to work out a more permanent solution on immigration — in that sense, it’s basically just a longer version of the six-month deadline Trump has set Congress before people start losing DACA protections en masse.

The bill doesn’t have a ton of support. But one of its sponsors, Rep. Mike Coffman (R-CO), is committed enough to it that he’s planning to try a discharge petition (a rarely-successful procedural move) to force it to the floor for a vote.

The RAC (Recognizing America’s Children) Act is the proposal favored by many Republicans. It would allow people who arrived in the US before age 16 and have been here for at least five years (and meet educational and criminal requirements similar to the ones under DACA) to apply for “conditional” permanent residency — which they could then, after five years, apply to turn into standard green cards and become citizens. But the bill allows the government to kick people out of their legal status if they don’t stay in school or stay employed.

The RAC Act was introduced by a group of Republicans with relatively vulnerable seats, but as it became clear that Trump was going to end DACA, it’s attracted the support of Republicans who are more straightforwardly conservative. Sen. Thom Tillis (R-NC) is expected to introduce a version of the RAC Act in the coming days, and Sen. Tom Lankford (R-OK) appears to be on board with it as well. When Gov. Rick Scott of Florida urged Trump not to leave DACA recipients out in the cold, he endorsed the RAC Act as a solution to the problem.

The DREAM Act, in its current incarnation (as opposed to the versions that have been introduced for the past 16 years), would legalize DREAMers in the same way the RAC Act would: by allowing them to become “conditional” permanent residents and then removing the conditions after certain requirements are met.

It’s more generous than the RAC Act; it allows anyone to qualify who’s been in the US since age 18 and has lived here for four years, and allows people who have Temporary Protected Status (as well as those who are unauthorized) to apply for conditional permanent status as well. And the DREAM Act doesn’t force immigrants to stay in “conditional” limbo for a particular amount of time; instead, they can get green cards after they’ve been in college for a certain amount of time (or have a degree), or have been employed for at least 75 percent of the time they’ve had a work permit.

The DREAM Act is the bill that most Democrats are backing, along with Senate Republicans who are known to favor citizenship for unauthorized immigrants (Sens. Lindsey Graham, John McCain, and Jeff Flake). But it was also the bill endorsed by the Attorney General of Tennessee when he withdrew himself from the threatened lawsuit against DACA on Friday — a sign it might gain support among more conservative members as well.

Who will demand tradeoffs — and what those tradeoffs will be

Figuring out which vehicle to use to protect DREAMers is only the first hurdle. DACA’s defenders in Congress then need to get it to pass.

It is unlikely, to say the least, that any of these bills would have 60 votes in the Senate as they exist today — and that Trump would sign a bill that only addressed the DREAMer question.

At the same time, no one in Congress is categorically saying they won’t make a deal — even Sen. Tom Cotton (R-AR), the most hardline member of the Senate on immigration, is willing to entertain legalizing DREAMers in exchange for halving legal immigration over the next decade and making it mandatory for employers to electronically check that anyone they hire is a legal worker.

The sweet spot of a 60-vote Senate majority and a 218-vote House one is probably somewhere between a standalone DACA-legalization bill and the Cotton “deal.” The question is where. Different factions of Congress have different priorities they want to address on immigration, and many are likely to get on board with a proposal to protect DREAMers only if they’re given some of what they want on immigration as well.

The most commonly floated possibility for a “compromise” is pairing DREAM with some money for border enforcement — what Republicans could call a “down payment” on Trump’s border wall (although it’s too soon to tell whether it would be earmarked for a fence or “wall,” or simply used for more infrastructure and technology generally).

It’s not clear whether anyone in power is actually offering this deal, or if it’s just a deal that supporters of the DREAM or RAC Acts know they would accept if offered. And it’s not clear whether that would be enough to get the votes they need from Republicans.

For the moment, everyone from John McCain to the White House is saying that Congress should take this opportunity to pass a “comprehensive” immigration package. But “comprehensive” is in the eye of the beholder: To McCain, it means legalization for all 11 million immigrants currently in the US; to Trump, it appears to mean something like what Cotton’s proposing. It’s going to take a bit to tell who’s using “comprehensive” as a reason to support passing a bill on immigration — and who’s using it as a reason not to support whatever bill actually comes forward.