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Will Republicans End Up Fixing Immigration After All?

Trump took aim at the Obama-era DACA program. Now, reform-minded conservatives are scrambling to find their own immigration solutions.

WASHINGTON, DC - SEPTEMBER 5:  Demonstrators march during a demonstration in response to the Trump Administration's announcement that it would end the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program on September 5, 2017 in Washington, DC.  DACA, an immigration policy passed by former President Barack Obama, allows certain undocumented immigrants who arrived in the United States as minors to receive renewable two-year deferred action from deportation and eligibility fork a work permit. (Photo by Zach Gibson/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, DC - SEPTEMBER 5: Demonstrators march during a demonstration in response to the Trump Administration's announcement that it would end the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program on September 5, 2017 in Washington, DC. DACA, an immigration policy passed by former President Barack Obama, allows certain undocumented immigrants who arrived in the United States as minors to receive renewable two-year deferred action from deportation and eligibility fork a work permit. (Photo by Zach Gibson/Getty Images)

In early September, President Donald Trump sent shockwaves through the immigration community, announcing that he would end by March an Obama-era program that shielded from deportation some 800,000 young immigrants living illegally in the United States. Then he challenged Congress to deal with the matter, opening the door for advocates of centrist immigration reform to salvage with fresh legislation a pathway to citizenship for people who’ve never really known life in any other country.

On Thursday, the deadline for undocumented people to renew their status under the Deferred Actions for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, conservative immigration activists barged through that door, meeting with lawmakers on Capitol Hill and holding conferences and panels urging conservatives to lead the way to new immigration laws.

“He created a vacuum, and Republicans have a great opportunity to lead towards a solution,” said Ali Noorani, executive director of the National Immigration Forum, an advocacy organization that focuses on getting conservative and centrist activists involved in immigration policy.

Immigration has become a political flashpoint in recent years, especially within the GOP. Trump himself swept to the Republican Party nomination and a general election victory in part thanks to tough talk on border security, travel bans, and promises of deportation. GOP lawmakers who’d backed immigration reform were eviscerated.

That tough talk hamstrung relations with neighbors like Mexico, and fumbling attempts to implement travel bans infuriated U.S. partners in the fight against terrorism, like Iraq. (Even if the administration hadn’t chosen to end the DACA program, it could have been challenged in court: Nine Republican state attorneys general had threatened to file suit.)

But today, the climate seems to be changing. Several Republican bills are floating around Congress proposing immigration reforms that would provide DACA recipients a pathway to full citizenship — on merits, of course, and coupled with provisions for tougher border security.

Last week, Sen. Thom Tillis (R-N.C.) proposed the SUCCEED Act, a bill that offers a conditional, 15-year pathway to citizenship for eligible DACA recipients, while also calling for “a border security solution in order to help stop illegal immigration, human trafficking, and drug trafficking along our borders.”

“I want a conservative and stable solution that does the right thing,” Tillis said on Thursday, making sure to toe the party line, even as he advocated an immigration reform that would have been anathema during the recent presidential campaign.

“If they’re not law-abiding, then they should be in prison and they should be out of this country,” he added.

DACA’s looming demise has been an emotional rollercoaster for many of its beneficiaries. Sofia Pereyra, 24, was relieved when she received a text message from the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services on Monday confirming they received her renewal paperwork. But she says she still doesn’t know if that means her renewal was accepted, and if she’ll be shielded from deportation for the next two years.

“It’s horrible,” she said. “I really don’t know what’s going to happen.”

A Los Angeles resident since she was seven, Pereyra is terrified of being sent back to Mexico. “California is all I know,” she said.

She’s preparing herself for the worst-case scenario. In July, Pereyra’s brother passed away and was buried in Los Angeles. She said her family has been discussing whether or not they would have to exhume his remains should they get deported.

Yet Pereyra is one of the lucky ones. Almost 30 percent of people eligible to renew their DACA status failed to submit their applications, a mound of paperwork that comes with a nearly $500 submission fee. Advocates pleaded with the government to push back the deadline in hurricane-ravaged areas like Florida and Texas, but the administration only made exceptions for Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands on a case-by-case basis.

Immigration reformers and some law enforcement officials are carving out what they see as a commonsense middle ground in the middle of a polarizing debate.

“We all have to get in the mindset of give and take, and ultimately what’s in the best interests of the people we’re trying to help,” said Art Acevedo, chief of the Houston Police Department. He expressed frustration at activists on the left who focus on a pathway to full citizenship, including the right to vote and all other accoutrements of being an American.

“If you talk to most of the people we’re trying to help, they don’t care about the right to vote, they don’t care about citizenship — they want legitimacy, they want to get a driver’s license, they want to be able to buy car insurance,” Acevedo said.

But he also steered clear of the anti-immigrant vitriol spouted by Trump on the campaign trail. “We can’t have a deportation force. Everybody knows that,” he said. “On the right this notion that undocumented immigrants are thugs and rapists is absolutely not supported by the facts.”

He said he was in favor of young immigrants staying in the country as long as “they’ve been productive members of society. In other words, staying out of trouble.”

While they’re geared up for action on Capitol Hill, advocates pushing immigration reform aren’t ready yet to draw any lines in the sand in terms of exactly what conservative immigration policy should look like. It’s still a prickly subject that can wrongfoot ambitious lawmakers, especially Republicans.

“We’re focused mainly on making sure that Republicans understand that their constituents want a constructive solution to the immigration system,” Noorani said. “It’s a little bit too early to say what’s the dealbreaker.”

Zach Gibson/Getty Images

Ruby Mellen is a fellow at Foreign Policy. @RubyMellen

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