Talks over protecting Dreamers pick up in Congress, but agreement still elusive

Time is short as session nears completion and Republicans prepare to assume control of House

By: - December 7, 2022 3:30 am

Sen. Bob Menendez (D-NJ) speaks during a news conference about the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program (DACA) outside the U.S. Capitol on Nov. 16, 2022, in Washington, D.C. Senate Democrats called on Republicans to join them in passing DACA legislation during the lame-duck session to protect young migrants brought to the U.S. as children from being deported. (Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

WASHINGTON — In a last-minute push, U.S. senators are working on a bipartisan agreement to create a pathway to citizenship for undocumented people who were brought to the United States as children.

But the success of any major immigration deal appears unlikely, as a lame-duck session of Congress dwindles into its last days. Democrats are set to lose control of the House come January, making the prospects of an agreement next year much more difficult. 

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U.S. Sens. Kyrsten Sinema, an Arizona Democrat, and Thom Tillis, a North Carolina Republican, are still in talks on a draft proposal that would create a pathway to citizenship for up to 2 million undocumented people, often referred to as Dreamers, who are either enrolled in the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program or would qualify for it. There is no legislative text and no deal has been finalized, Tillis told States Newsroom.

The possible agreement would also extend the controversial Title 42 policy, which allows the United States to turn away noncitizens seeking asylum during a health crisis, and allocate funding for border security. The outline would also include a pathway to citizenship for those under Temporary Protected Status, which is more than 350,000 people. 

“We hope that those talks come to fruition,” U.S. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, a New York Democrat, told reporters at the U.S. Capitol on Tuesday.

Court ruling

More than 600,000 currently enrolled DACA recipients are in limbo, as a recent 5th Circuit Court of Appeals ruling upheld a lower court decision that determined the DACA program to be unlawful — though current recipients are not yet affected — and blocked the government from accepting new applications. Colorado Gov. Jared Polis has said the state was home to 14,520 DACA recipients as of March 2020.

Gov. Polis urges Congress to pass protections for DACA recipients

Many immigration advocates have argued that it’s clear that DACA will be deemed illegal by the courts, leaving uncertainty for hundreds of thousands of Dreamers. 

U.S. Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin of Illinois has said for weeks that he knows of roughly four or five Senate Republicans who are interested in striking a deal to pass legislation to create a pathway to citizenship for undocumented people enrolled in DACA. But Senate Democrats would need 10 Republican votes to overcome the filibuster threshold to pass such legislation.

On Twitter, Durbin said he was interested in reviewing the draft proposal between Tillis and Sinema.

“I am determined to do everything in my power to help deliver a Christmas miracle for Dreamers,” Durbin wrote on Twitter.

Tillis said that he and Sinema have been talking for months about a possible immigration deal, and felt that they have made progress. He said the framework for creating a pathway to citizenship for those under DACA “is more or less settled,” and that the sticking point is “getting the final bricks of the foundation for border security — that’s still up in the air.”

As for timing of the proposal, Tillis did not say if a deal could be finished by the end of Congress’ lame-duck session.

“It’s gonna take a little while to get a draft that we would be comfortable with publishing,” Tillis said.

U.S. Sen. Bob Menendez of New Jersey, chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, who has been pushing for a pathway to citizenship for DACA recipients, told States Newsroom that he has some concerns with the framework.

The extension of Title 42, and how asylum is treated were among his concerns, he said. 

“Magical things can happen,” Menendez said. “But by the same token, you know, the clock is ticking.”

No details circulated

Many senators said they are aware of the Sinema-Tillis framework, but have yet to see any written specifics. 

Republican Sen. Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania told reporters at the Capitol Monday that he knew of the Tillis-Sinema agreement, “but I have not seen the details.”

Republican Sen. Mike Rounds of South Dakota told reporters at the Capitol Monday that he was skeptical an immigration deal could be passed before the end of the lame-duck session. He said any deal on immigration would have to include border security.

“It’s not something you can airdrop,” he said, a term commonly used in Washington about proposals that have not seen any committee or floor action. He added that his office has not received any bill text of the proposal.

In 2018, Rounds and independent Sen. Angus King of Maine tried to pass an immigration proposal that would create a pathway to citizenship for Dreamers and provide $25 billion to the Trump administration to build a wall along the U.S -Mexico border. 

White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said during a press briefing Monday that the administration was aware of a proposal, but had not seen details. 

“The president has repeatedly called on Congress to permanently protect Dreamers, farmworkers, essential workers, and others and to provide them with the pathway to citizenship,” she said. “So, that is certainly a priority for the president.  But we haven’t seen the detailed proposal, so I can’t comment … about that from here.”

Advocates want ‘real solutions’

Immigration advocates have lobbied Democrats for weeks to pass a last-effort piece of legislation to give DACA recipients a permanent pathway to citizenship. 

Greisa Martinez Rosas, the CEO of United We Dream, the largest youth immigration advocacy group, said in a statement that time to pass any DACA-related legislation is running out.

“We’ve heard of many leaked memos, conversations and ‘deals’ over the last 40 years,” Martinez Rosas said. “We don’t need DC gossip, we need real solutions, we need a pathway to citizenship now.”

Similarly, more than 70 mayors signed a bipartisan letter, urging Congress to “enact permanent protections for Dreamers during the lame duck session.”

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Ariana Figueroa
Ariana Figueroa

Ariana covers the nation's capital for States Newsroom. Her areas of coverage include politics and policy, lobbying, elections and campaign finance.

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