There’s an extraordinary degree of legislative uncertainty around the DREAM Act, the bipartisan bill that’s necessary in order to protect some 800,000 beneficiaries of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program after DACA begins to phase out in March (as per the Trump administration’s order last week).
DACA allows certain undocumented immigrants who were brought to the U.S. as children — a group sometimes called the “Dreamers” — to obtain government ID, such as drivers licenses, and lawfully work, as long as they have clean criminal records and have obtained a high school diploma or GED or are working towards one. It also ensures they won’t get deported. (There are an estimated 5,000 DACA recipients in Arkansas, according to Department of Homeland Security data.) Dreamers are a highly sympathetic group, which is why polls consistently show a majority of Americans — including many Republicans — don’t want them to be subject to deportation. President Trump has said Congress should take action to replace DACA with legislation. (Incidentally, doing so would be a big improvement over DACA itself, which President Obama always considered a stopgap measure when he enacted it.)
In a more functional political system, the DREAM Act would seem to be a slam dunk. A majority of members of Congress say they want it; most voters say they want it; the president says he wants it. Yet it’s anything but. Similar legislation failed time and time again under President George W. Bush and then under Obama. Immigration has only become a more politically difficult issue in the years since.
This piece from FiveThirtyEight explains why opinion poll numbers on DACA don’t necessarily indicate Congress can pass a bill: In short, primaries. There’s a large, loud contingent of viciously anti-immigrant activists within the GOP, and members rightly fear them more than they fear alienating the disappearing political center. The partisan incentive structure has evolved to penalize compromise, even on an issue with broad, bipartisan support (and yes, there are analogues on the Left as well):
Even though DACA is popular, Republicans would be unlikely to face a backlash among their voters — even their more centrist ones — should they refuse to pass a replacement.
Indeed, Republican members of Congress could face a backlash if they pass one — in the form of primary challenges. In recent elections, a hardline stance on immigration has proved to be a winner in Republican primaries. It has been highly correlated with how well GOP senators have done against primary challenges — senators with more hardline positions have done better against primary challengers; those with more moderate views have done worse.
In 2016, moreover, immigration may have been the issue most responsible for Trump’s winning the Republican nomination. In every state with a caucus or primary exit poll, he did best among voters who said immigration was their top issue.
One lawmaker who grasps this dynamic is Arkansas Senator Tom Cotton, who tweeted out a link to the above article with the following comment:
— Tom Cotton (@TomCottonAR) September 13, 2017
Unfortunately, Cotton, a close student of Trump’s success, is probably correct. That’s why the ambitious young senator is constructing his political brand around immigration restrictions and punitive enforcement measures. He’s already said that he won’t consider supporting a DACA replacement unless it’s paired with stricter immigration policies such as his own RAISE Act, which would sharply curtail legal immigration limits and make it harder to get a green card.
But the issue is further complicated by Trump himself. At first, it seemed like Trump’s support for the DREAM Act would be contingent on congressional funding for his own dream of a U.S.-Mexico border wall. Then, yesterday, Trump’s legislative affairs director told reporters that Trump would not insist on tying the border wall to a DACA replacement:
“We’re interested in getting border security and the president has made the commitment to the American people that a barrier is important to that security,” [Marc] Short said. “Whether or not that is part of a DACA equation, or … another legislative vehicle, I don’t want to bind us into a construct that would make the conclusion on DACA impossible.”
Conservatives aren’t happy about this, complaining that Trump is preparing to “give away” his leverage on the issue. It’s far from clear what Trump actually wants to see happen with the DREAM Act — as with any number of things — there’s the remarkable possibility that he might lend his support to DACA replacement which has a chance of passage with bipartisan support. And as confounding as that development would be, the president’s imprimatur could give rank-and-file Republicans cover in voting for a piece of legislation that they’d otherwise fear touching. (The flip side, as FiveThirtyEIght points out, is that if “Trump were to campaign heavily against replacing DACA, it’s difficult to see how any bill becomes law.”)
This is where rank-and-file Republicans like Rep. French Hill and Rep. Steve Womack would become important. Both are from districts that are seen as safe to Republican incumbents, though with a growing Latino population and a sizable (though far from critical) slice of demi-urban voters with more progressive views. Neither is ever going to take any sort of principled, iconoclastic stand on an issue like immigration (or, frankly, much of anything) if it entails breaking with their party. But that also may mean they are more persuadable on an issue this fluid; just look at the vague language with which they responded to Trump’s DACA announcement.
Either way, the impending phase-out of DACA will force the issue to a head sometime in the next six months. If the stars align — that is, GOP leadership allows the DREAM Act to come up for a vote, and a bipartisan deal is struck that gains the support of a critical mass of what passes for centrist Republicans and Democrats in this Congress — the support of cautious, play-by-the-rules Republicans like Hill and Womack could determine its fate.