'Amnesty' fight threatens pursuit of immigration deal

A path to citizenship for “Dreamers” is emerging as the biggest sticking point in the negotiations over an immigration bill, one day after President Trump and Democratic leaders seemed close to a deal.

Democrats view Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program participants as "Americans in every way except on paper" and consider a pathway to citizenship non-negotiable. 

But many conservative critics of DACA deem any citizenship benefits for immigrants in the country illegally to be “amnesty” for those who broke the law when they entered the country. And Trump on Thursday, after taking a beating in the conservative press, sought to assure his base that he won’t cave on one of his biggest campaign promises.


“We’re not looking at citizenship. We’re not looking at amnesty. We’re looking at allowing people to stay here,” Trump told reporters as he was headed to Florida to survey the damage from Hurricane Irma.  

Those comments came as a surprise to Democratic leaders who dined with the president at the White House on Wednesday night. According to their version of events, they’ve insisted at every turn that DACA recipients be protected by legislation, dubbed the Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors Act, or DREAM Act, which grants eventual citizenship.

“Our insistence in every conversation — with the Speaker, with the president or with the Dreamers — [has been] that it will be the DREAM Act,” House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) told reporters Thursday at the Capitol.  

“I'm not here to speak about what the president understands,” she added. “But I do believe that there is an understanding that down the road, there is an eventual path to citizenship in the DREAM Act.” 

Other Democrats piled on, emphasizing that the party is virtually united on that issue. 

“I would think the overwhelming sentiment among Democrats is that there must be a path to citizenship — there must be,” said Rep. G.K. ButterfieldGeorge (G.K.) Kenneth ButterfieldThe Memo: How liberal will the Biden presidency be? Democrats vow to go 'bold' — with or without GOP CBC 'unequivocally' endorses Shalanda Young for White House budget chief MORE (D-N.C.). He suggested the president might not have a full understanding of what the DREAM Act entails.

“I’m not sure he knows what amnesty is, either,” Butterfield said. 

The DREAM Act concept is 16 years old, but it’s gained a newfound urgency this month after Trump dismantled DACA, an Obama-era executive program that grants temporary legal rights to some Dreamers — a term often used for people brought to the country illegally as minors.

The version favored by the Democrats was proposed in the House by Reps. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.) and Lucille Roybal-Allard (D-Calif.). According to the Migration Policy Institute (MPI), it would make 1.8 million Dreamers eligible to immediately regularize their immigration status. 

"The only bill the Hispanic Caucus is comfortable with right now, as it's written, is the DREAM Act," said Rep. Tony Cárdenas (D-Calif.).

Rep. Carlos Curbelo (R-Fla.) has introduced a similar bill. The Florida Republican said Thursday that he spoke this week with the office of Speaker Paul RyanPaul Davis RyanBiden's relationship with top House Republican is frosty The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Emergent BioSolutions - Facebook upholds Trump ban; GOP leaders back Stefanik to replace Cheney Budowsky: Liz Cheney vs. conservatives in name only MORE (R-Wis.) about the proposal — a conversation he continued Thursday with House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) on the chamber floor. 

According to the MPI, Curbelo's bill would make 1 million Dreamers immediately eligible for legalization, leading to criticism from some Democrats who want to protect more people. Rep. Raúl Grijalva (D-Ariz.), chairman of the Progressive Caucus, said Thursday that he wouldn’t support the Curbelo bill. Other members of the Hispanic Caucus indicated they would be forced to consider the bill if it came to the floor. 

The issue creates a math problem for Ryan and other GOP leaders. Ryan, before accepting the Speaker’s gavel almost two years ago, had promised members of the far-right Freedom Caucus that he wouldn’t bring any immigration bill to the floor without having the support of more than half the Republican conference.

It’s a promise the conservatives haven’t forgotten.

“The Speaker has said he’s not going to bring something to the floor on immigration that doesn’t have the majority of the majority. He made that promise to us, and I’m sure that he’s not going to go back on his word,” said Rep. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.), chairman of the Freedom Caucus. 

Meadows said he opposes the DREAM Act “because it’s viewed as an amnesty bill.” But four members of his caucus are working with GOP senators to forge an alternative more favorable to conservatives, he said. 

“We believe we can give some alternatives that will get a majority of the majority,” Meadows said. He did not say when.

In 2010, Democrats pushed through a DREAM Act proposal as one of their last acts as the House majority — a bill that won the support of only eight Republicans. 

But Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.) said times have changed since then. He thinks a revised DREAM Act, loaded with border security measures, could win over a majority of the Republican conference. 

“I wouldn’t put too much credence in that 2010 vote,” Cole said.

Ryan, for his part, suggested on Thursday that Trump’s support for a DACA fix would, alone, be enough to sway most Republicans to back the measure, as was the case with the debt-limit hike passed by Congress last week. 

“We're not going to bring a solution to the floor that does not have the support of President Trump,” Ryan said during a press briefing in the Capitol. “And if we have the support of President Trump … that, I believe, will get a majority of our members, because our members support President Trump.” 

Since rescinding DACA, Trump has insisted he'll support some form of legislative relief for DACA recipients, but he's vacillated on what he'll demand in exchange for that support. 

On Wednesday alone, for instance, Trump seemed to divorce DACA from his proposed border wall, then appeared to condition one on the other within the space of three hours.  

"The wall will come later, we're right now renovating large sections of wall, massive sections, making it brand new," Trump told reporters early Wednesday, when asked if the wall would be a part of a DACA replacement bill.

“We’ll only do it if we get extreme security, not only surveillance but everything that goes with surveillance. If there’s not a wall, we’re doing nothing,” he said later in the day. 

That's made Democrats wary of the apparent progress made in negotiations with the White House. 

"He is all over the map, to put it mildly," said Cárdenas. "Until we put something on his desk and he actually signs it, only until then will we see what he's really doing."