Can Congress finally pass the DREAM Act?

Congress Has Always Let Dreamers Down. Will This Time Be Any Different?

Congress Has Always Let Dreamers Down. Will This Time Be Any Different?

The Slatest
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Sept. 5 2017 3:06 PM

Congress Has Always Let Dreamers Down. Will This Time Be Any Different?

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Sens. Lindsey Graham and John McCain.

Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

With the Trump administration’s announcement Tuesday that it will end the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, program President Obama began in 2012, the fate of Dreamers—children of undocumented immigrants who were brought to the United States prior to June 2007—rests in the Republican Congress’ ability to pass legislation akin to the DREAM Act.

Jim Newell Jim Newell

Jim Newell is a Slate staff writer.

Sens. Orrin Hatch of Utah and Dick Durbin of Illinois originally introduced the DREAM Act in 2001. Since then, the existence of a bipartisan coalition in favor of passing something to protect those brought here illegally as children has hinged largely on one factor: whether Barack Obama was president or not. This presents a tricky outlook for Dreamers. Since Barack Obama is not the president right now, some Republicans find themselves open to considering such legislation. The other side of that coin, though, is that the fate of Dreamers rests on the goodwill of people with only a circumstantial moral compass.

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“I've urged the president not to rescind DACA, an action that would further complicate a system in serious need of a permanent, legislative solution,” Sen. Hatch said last week. Arizona Sen. John McCain on Tuesday called Trump’s decision “the wrong approach to immigration policy,” while his Arizona colleague Sen. Jeff Flake said on Sunday that he hoped Trump would “ignore” his campaign promise to end DACA. Kansas Sen. Jerry Moran, during an August town hall, said that “DACA has made sense to me” and he was “supportive” of it. And South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham said that if Trump did choose to end DACA, he would work hard to find a legislative solution for Dreamers. He cited the DREAM Act that he and Sen. Durbin introduced this summer.

So how did these five Republicans vote during the last stand-alone legislative push for the DREAM Act during the 2010 lame-duck session?

Flake and Moran, who were both members of the House at the time (Moran was a few weeks away from joining the Senate) voted against the DREAM Act in that chamber. The DREAM Act passed the House anyway, and then made its way to the Senate, where it died: It earned 55 votes, not enough to surmount a filibuster. Three Republicans voted to advance it: Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski, Utah Sen. Bob Bennett, and Indiana Sen. Dick Lugar. The former two had already lost Republican renomination earlier in 2010—Murkowski had to win her re-election through a write-in campaign—and the latter would lose his primary in 2012.

Among the Republicans who voted against it were McCain, who had just won re-election by pivoting hard to the right on immigration, and Graham, who today is one of the GOP’s most vocal supporters of passing the DREAM Act. Both of them cited the lack of accompanying reforms to secure the border as reasons for their “no” votes.

But the most representative vote belonged to Hatch, the original co-sponsor of the DREAM Act nine years earlier. Hatch didn’t vote at all, because he was attending a grandson’s graduation. He did make clear, though, that had he been there, he would have voted against it. He described Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid’s decision to call the bill up a “show [vote] aimed at currying favor with [Democrats’ far left political constituencies.” That’s an awfully harsh thing to say about a version of a bill he had been the first to introduce. But Hatch had seen his Utah colleague, Bennett, get tossed out by far-right voters earlier in the year, and he was looking ahead to his re-election in 2012. (Lest you think only Republicans do this sort of thing: Five red-state Democratic senators, who were in pure cover-your-ass mode after seeing the 2010 midterm results, voted against the DREAM Act, too.)

Few political constituencies have been jerked around by Congress quite like the Dreamers in the past 10 years. Even after President Obama instituted DACA in 2012, Congress couldn't help but subject Dreamers to fights about "defunding" DACA. If Dreamers should have any optimism about a legislative solution now that their administrative protections have been revoked, it will be because the political winds of the moment could blow in their direction. Obama is not the president, so Republicans don’t have to worry about being criticized for supporting President Obama’s amnesty. And if mainstream Republicans' statements show anything, it's that they are itching to distance themselves from the cruelty of Trump's action. That's the sentiment today, at least.