Arkansas Sen. Tom Cotton today jumped into the debate over DACA, the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, with a statement that sounds much like an ultimatum: Any legislative relief for young undocumented immigrants now covered under DACA must be paired with stricter immigration policies.
U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced this morning that DACA will be phased out over the next six months, potentially opening the door to the deportation of some 800,000 young undocumented immigrants who grew up in the U.S. and have enjoyed the ability to legally work as a result of the Obama-era program. But Sessions’ boss, President Trump, has said he wants Congress to come up with a legislative solution to give that cohort of immigrants — often referred to as the “Dreamers” — a means of remaining in the U.S. The question now is what such legislation might look like. Sens. Lindsey Graham (R-South Carolina) and Dick Durbin (D-Illinois) introduced a bipartisan bill last week that would give some Dreamers a pathway to permanent residency and perhaps citizenship; if such a measure passed, it would actually be a major improvement over DACA in terms of its benefit to Dreamers.
Cotton is not on board. The senator has positioned himself both as a hardliner on immigration issues and a close ally of Trump, and his statement today seemed to indicate his support for a legislative successor to DACA is likely contingent on more aggressive immigration enforcement, the passage of his own proposed cuts to the green card system, or both. Cotton’s full statement (emphasis added):
President Trump took a first step today toward cleaning up the mess that President Obama’s unlawful amnesty left behind. President Trump is right that this amnesty would never have stood up in court. Yet, we now face a situation where 800,000 people, who were brought to our country as minors, face legal limbo. Dealing with this problem is a legislative task, not an executive-branch task. But we must recognize that codifying the DACA program will have two negative consequences: encouraging future illegal immigration with minors and allowing those 800,000 people to obtain legal status for their family members via chain migration, which rewards the very people who broke the law in the first place and further depresses working-class wages. Thus, we must mitigate these consequences by stopping the chain migration that hurts the working class and by strengthening the enforcement of our immigration laws. I’ve introduced legislation, the RAISE Act, that would limit the amount of low-skilled immigration coming into our country, and my colleagues have several proposals to strengthen enforcement. These should be the starting point of our discussions, and I look forward to working with all of my colleagues to come up with a deal that protects American workers.
What does this mean for the political chances of a DACA replacement? The RAISE Act, sponsored by Cotton and Sen. Sonny Perdue (R-Georgia) and endorsed by Trump, would cut legal immigration by half over the next decade. It’s unclear what additional enforcement mechanisms Cotton is referring to, but White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said today that Trump wants any DACA replacement to include funding for a wall on the U.S.-Mexico border. For most congressional Democrats — maybe all — these are nonstarters. Immigrant advocates are calling for a vote on a “clean bill,” meaning one focused just on the question of Dreamers and not the broader immigration system:
— ACLU National (@ACLU) September 5, 2017
Whatever room exists for a DACA substitute would probably have to involve a majority of Democrats and those Republicans willing to buck the nativist policies of Trump and Cotton. (And even then, it might face a veto threat from Trump.) But are enough congressional Republicans willing to do that?
Arkansas Rep. Steve Womack, a Republican who represents Northwest Arkansas, also issued a statement on today’s announcement. Though vague, it stands in contrast to Cotton’s words, both in sounding a note of empathy for DACA recipients and for not including an ultimatum on immigration limits or enforcement (emphasis added):
The issue of DACA-eligible young people is a manifestation of a broken immigration enforcement system. I have a heart for their plight. At the same time, I believe that part of the genius of America is that we are a nation of laws. The President is right; Congress has the responsibility to address this issue and now is the time to do so. With thoughtful debate, jobs can be protected, lawful immigration can be championed, and the proper relief can come for the young people who know only America as their country and who continue to work hard to achieve that American dream.
UPDATE, 4:05 p.m.: Arkansas’s other senator, Republican John Boozman, issued the following brief statement, which is even more vague than Womack’s:
The Obama administration overreached its authority when it unilaterally expanded the DACA program. I am pleased that President Trump is returning the power to Congress to restore the integrity of our nation’s immigration system. As Congress pursues immigration reform, I will push for legislative solutions to fix our broken immigration system, including the lengthy and burdensome legal immigration process.
For whatever it’s worth, Cotton’s RAISE Act explicitly aims to make the legal immigration process more lengthy and more burdensome by winnowing the number of green cards issued each year.
UPDATE, 5:45 p.m.: U.S. Rep. French Hill issued a statement this afternoon:
Our immigration system is inflexible and outdated, but attempting to fix it through executive action was not the answer. The president’s actions mark a return of legislation authority – where it rightfully belongs – because we are a nation ‘of and by the people.’ My colleagues and I are committed to improving our broken immigration system compassionately and thoughtfully to ensure that those coming to our country can easily comply with our laws in order to pursue a bright and promising future.