San Antonio Express-News
By Bill Lambrecht
February 26, 2018
Dreamers caught in the political crossfire that has immobilized Congress will get help next week from influential backers, the hierarchy of the Catholic Church and then a gathering of faith leaders leaders preparing to wage civil disobedience.
But more than prayer likely will be needed for Congress to solve the plight of hundreds of thousands of young undocumented immigrants before the White House-ordered March 5 expiration of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program.
Almost 700,000 young immigrants have received temporary work permits under the 2012 program, including more than 120,000 in Texas.
The end of DACA is blocked by federal judges, but so-called Dreamers and their allies have long pressed Congress to act by next week given the prospect of losing in the courts.
Meeting that goal seemed improbable after the two most popular bipartisan solutions – one authored by San Antonio Republican Rep. Will Hurd – collapsed in a Senate session this month due in large measure to President Donald Trump’s heavy-handed involvement.
An immediate DACA-fix grew next to impossible when the House, out of session all last week, declared Thursday that it would be voting next week for just one full day – leaving only two legislative days to get the job done.
Billy Graham, the evangelist and pastor to politicians who died last week, will lie in honor in the Capitol Rotunda on Wednesday and Thursday, two days the House was scheduled to be at work.
“I try to remain optimistic that Congress can reach an agreement by March 5,” said San Antonio Democratic Rep. Joaquin Castro, “But it’s hard to look at the schedule and not feel grim about it.”
Advocates for those who face losing work permits and possible deportation hope now that appeals based on morality can succeed where political pressure has not.
The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, led by Cardinal Daniel DiNardo of the Galveston-Houston Archdiocese, have declared Monday the National Catholic Call-In Day to Protect Dreamers. Cardinal DiNardo and others high in the Catholic Church declared in a statement that they were “deeply disturbed” at the Senate’s failure in a highly-anticipated session two weeks ago.
“Our faith compels us to stand with the vulnerable, including our immigrant brothers and sisters. We have done so continually, but we must show our support and solidarity now in a special way,” the statement read. It was also signed by Archbishop Jose Gomez of Los Angeles and Bishop Joe S. Vasquez of Austin.
In a separate action on Tuesday, dozens of clergy, nuns and Catholic leaders expect to get arrested on Capitol Hill in what is being called a Catholic Day of Action, said a spokeswoman for PICO National Network, an alliance of faith-based community organizations.
In taking on DACA, the religious leaders are lending their voice — and some their freedom — to solving what has become most intractable issue in Washington. Even in addressing gun violence, Congress has been moving toward better federal record-keeping, and additional measures likely will be considered in the aftermath of the recent Florida high school shooting.
But on immigration, no clear path to legislation exists, with Republicans and their allies describing relief for DACA recipients as “amnesty.”
“The American public’s interest needs to be addressed here and needs to be addressed first because we’ve been down this road before and seen what happens when amnesty is given and promises of future enforcement and changes are never delivered on,” said Ira Mehlman, spokesman for the Federation of American Immigration Reform.
Trump shows no signs of relenting on his offer of trading a path to citizenship for 1.8 million DACA-aged immigrants for border wall funding and revised methods of immigrant entry, among them limits on family sponsorship. But his plan received just 39 Senate votes this month, fewer than the bipartisan deals he worked to kill.
Democrats, many of whom have acceded to the president’s demand for $25 billion over time for a border wall, balk at limiting legal immigration to the extent Trump wants.
Trump, speaking on Friday at the Conservative Political Action Conference outside Washington, accused Democrats of “abandoning” DACA.
“The Democrats have been totally unresponsive. They don’t want to do anything about DACA. It’s very possible DACA won’t happen,” the president’s said.
Trump’s forceful entry into 11th hour Senate dickering this month was far removed from his earlier stated hopes of seeing a “bill of love” and vowing to sign whatever agreement Congress reached. Instead, the administration attacked two bipartisan plans with news releases and requests that GOP backers drop sponsorships.
A Homeland Security news release using capital letters for emphasis claimed that the Hurd-drawn legislation in the Senate protecting DACA recipients and authorizing a range of border security measures “Would Increase Illegal Immigration, Surge Chain Migration…and Give a Pathway to Citizenship to Convicted Alien Felons.”
The administration was just as dismissive with a second Democrat-Republican agreement. Homeland Security warned that the bill — although giving the president $25 billion for the border wall — “destroys” the ability to enforce immigration laws and creates “mass amnesty” for millions of illegal aliens, criminals among them.
The president’s tactics provoked an outburst from South Carolina GOP Sen. Lindsey Graham that reverberated through the Senate. Graham asserted that the “political hack” who had written the releases — Homeland Security press secretary Tyler Houlton — and senior White House adviser Stephen Miller are “the two most extreme characters in town.”
Arkansas Sen. Tom Cotton, aligned with other hard-line GOP senators, responded that Graham had embarrassed himself by “punching down and bullying someone who can’t defend himself.”
The future of Hurd’s bill in the House is clouded by the Trump administration’s veto threat despite having more than 50 House sponsors drawn equally from Republican and Democratic ranks. House authors of another immigration proposal with limited DACA protection that is tougher in some ways than Trump’s are struggling to round up votes. They added provisions appealing to farm-state members worried about losing undocumented workers
A new plan on Capitol Hill, authored by Arizona Republican Sen. Jeff Flake, would trade three years of protection for Dreamers for three years of border wall funding. There are suggestions that the Flake plan could become part of an omnibus spending bill that must pass by March 23 to avoid another government shutdown, and Texas Sen. John Cornyn has hinted that such a scenario could unfold.
March 23 also may be the last time before the midterm elections in November that Democrats have leverage to help Dreamers by withholding key votes, suggesting yet another round of shutdown drama in the District of Columbia.
But the Flake plan is drawing little enthusiasm, falling far short of offering a path to citizenship and the permanent protections of the defeated plans.
Mario Carrillo, a Texas spokesman for the national advocacy organization America’s Voice, described Flake’s proposal as “a patch that continues second-class status and doesn’t permanently resolve the problem for Dreamers.”
He added: “I think there are deals to be had and that it is a matter of Congress finding a backbone and coming through on a solution.”
Andrea Fernandez, a senior at the University of Texas at San Antonio, sees such limited solutions as barely worth the effort.
“If they’re really willing to place us in second-citizen status for three years, then it tells me that they just don’t care,” she said.
Fernandez, a DACA recipient who arrived in Texas with her family at age 8, feels so strongly that she has traveled to Washington six times since November. She was in Washington leading up to the Senate failure this month, keeping track of senators she spoke with, often fleetingly, as they came and went from meetings.
On her first days she spoke with six senators, on the second 15 and on the third eight. “Some were polite and some were very, very nasty,” she said.
She recalled that before the compromises went down, Cornyn told her politely, “You’re going to be really happy.”
It didn’t work out that way. “We just feel like they’re toying with our lives. We’re pawns in their political games,” Fernandez said.
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