WASHINGTON – President Donald Trump faces a fight within his own party over whether he should immediately end deportation relief for undocumented immigrants brought to the U.S. as children, a central part of his campaign pledge to take a harder line on illegal immigration.
Trump began issuing a set of executive actions related to immigration Wednesday, but it is not clear his early steps will affect deportation protections for about 750,000 young immigrants granted under a 2012 executive order by former President Barack Obama.
John Cornyn of Texas, the No. 2 Senate Republican leader, said this week that a bipartisan proposal allowing a three-year extension of the protections doesn’t go far enough. He said he favors a permanent resolution as part of a broader effort to bolster the U.S.-Mexico border.
“Why don’t we just fix it, rather than kick the can down the road?” he said.
But congressional Republicans’ leading immigration hard-liner, Rep. Steve King of Iowa, said Trump needs to cancel Obama’s order, saying the president’s decision on the matter will be a defining one for the rest of his term. “He’s got to keep his word, or his presidency will be rendered toothless and ineffective and non-credible for the duration,” King said.
The young immigrants provided information including fingerprints and relatives’ home addresses when they applied for protection under Obama’s order, known as Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals. They received renewable, two-year work permits and Social Security cards as part of the program.
Obama took his action after Congress stalled for years on legislation called the Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors Act, or Dream Act, which would have provided a path to legal status.
Trump has issued a series of executive actions since taking the Oval Office, including one initiating a freeze on hiring at most federal agencies and another withdrawing the U.S. from the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal. On Wednesday, he signed directives to set in motion construction of border reinforcement and toughening immigration enforcement within the U.S.
Outside groups and lawmakers who back the young immigrants, known as “Dreamers,” have been bracing for a reversal of Obama’s order.
“Throughout the Trump campaign and throughout the Trump transition, the only thing he’s been consistent about are his inconsistencies,” said Tom Jawetz, vice president of immigration policy for the liberal Center for American Progress. “It’s important for us to be prepared for the worst.”
There are some indications Trump will hold off, at least for now. Both Trump and House Speaker Paul Ryan have said publicly since the election that there are ongoing talks to find a compromise that will address the needs of the young immigrants.
“I think people want to see, do we have the situation under control,” House Homeland Security Chairman Mike McCaul of Texas said Wednesday morning at a Bloomberg Government event. “And then, as the president has said, then what do you do about the 12- and 15-year-olds? I don’t think you’re going to see mass deportations.”
Later Wednesday, Ryan told MSNBC, “They don’t have to worry.”
Dick Durbin, the No. 2 Senate Democrat, also said Trump assured him on Inauguration Day that he shouldn’t worry, with Trump telling him,”We don’t want to hurt those kids, we’re going to do something,” according to Durbin.
White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer this week reiterated that Trump doesn’t see rescinding the order as a priority, and instead sees deporting illegal aliens who have committed felonies as the initial focus.
“We need to direct agencies to focus on those who are in this country illegally and have a record — a criminal record — or pose a threat to the American people,” Spicer said. “That’s where the priorities are going to be and then we’re going to continue to work through the entire number of folks that are here illegally. But right now the clear focus is on that.”
There is growing pressure on Trump not to act when it comes to the younger immigrants, many of whom have college educations or have served in the military.
In the Senate, Durbin and three Republicans, including Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, introduced legislation extending Obama’s order for three years until a permanent solution is worked out. A similar bipartisan bill in the House has three GOP co-sponsors from districts with high concentrations of Latino voters, including Representative Mike Coffman of Colorado.
Some lawmakers see the matter getting used as a bargaining chip for a later deal on added border-security resources, after Trump campaigned that he would build a wall at the U.S. border with Mexico. He will need some Democratic support to succeed, because it takes 60 votes to get past delaying tactics in the Senate, and Republicans control 52 of 100 seats.
Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, a New York Democrat, said this week that lawmakers in his party will push hard for relief for the young immigrants and fight any other policies that target undocumented immigrants who already are here.
“Senate Democrats will fight tooth and nail against any and all anti-immigrant measures that President Trump or congressional Republicans will put forth,” he said at a rally with pro-immigrant groups.
King represents a wing of the party that has pushed for tougher immigration enforcement for years. Disappointing that wing, populated by conservative groups such as the Federation for American Immigration Reform and Numbers USA, could have repercussions for Trump.
FAIR, in a recent posting on its website, said it continues to seek immediate revocation of DACA, arguing that the program “is unconstitutional, rewards illegal aliens, and encourages additional immigration.”
For his part, King says he doesn’t want to see the Dreamers deported, but predicted that, without the order, some would continue to “live in the shadows.” That, he said, was “their choice when they came here in the first place.”
“That is clearly the direct promise of his campaign,” he said, likening it to Ronald Reagan firing air traffic controllers who went on strike early in his first term.
“If Ronald Reagan hadn’t fired the air traffic controllers, even though he put people in the air at risk by doing so, his presidency would have been without teeth for the duration,” King said. “This is that moment for Donald Trump.”