By Bill Lambrecht, Houston Chronicle
WASHINGTON – Democrats in Congress are growing increasingly pessimistic that an agreement to protect young immigrants from deportation can be reached this year.
While U.S. Rep. Henry Cuellar, D-Laredo, says it would take a miracle to get a deal done before lawmakers leave for the holidays later this week, immigration advocates are holding out hope that an agreement can be reached in the Senate by tying the fix to the must-pass budget bill, which could force action in the House.
The nearly 800,000 so-called “Dreamers” in jeopardy since the Trump administration canceled the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program have pressed for resolution before the end of the year. President Donald Trump gave Congress until early March to write legislation restoring protections, a date GOP leaders in Congress see as affording sufficient time for a solution.
“You have an unfolding crisis in which young American kids are losing jobs and being exposed to deportation, and Republican leadership is saying we can kick the can down the road,” said Frank Sharry, executive director of America’s Voice, an immigrant advocacy group.
An average of 122 DACA recipients lose protections like work permits daily because their renewal applications weren’t received by Oct. 5, the deadline the administration prescribed, advocates said. And waiting until 2018 could bring more problems because of election-year pressures, they say.
Cesar Espinosa, executive director of the immigrant rights organization FIEL Houston, said that he has seen congressional support dwindling as the year winds down – even from Democrats and progressives.
“Having DACA is a good thing. We were able to come out of the shadows, register and many folks were able to gain employment with that, but we need a permanent fix for the situation that we Dreamers are in at the moment,” said the 32-year-old, whose group represents about 8,000 individuals with DACA status in the Greater Houston area. “If we trade off the Dreamers for mass deportations, that’s something that gravely concerns us. Whatever concessions are made, whether in a tax bill or a stand-alone bill – which we are not hopeful for – it has to be something that our community can gain from and not something that will take more and more away from our communities.”
In the House, Speaker Paul Ryan appears to have gained the upper hand largely due to unusual unity his caucus displayed last week when 221 Republicans voted for a two-week extension to avoid a shutdown – more than the 218 needed – showing Democrats they would be unable to forge a DACA fix by withholding their votes.
Another big vote to keep the government funded is scheduled this week. But the potential of a sufficient number of members withholding their votes and risking blame for causing a shutdown appears to have diminished.
“We’re trying to put as much leverage on Republicans as we can, but they are saying early next year. I was hoping we could do it by the end of the year and maybe a miracle will happen, but I don’t see it right now,” said Cuellar, a moderate in his party. “I hate to put it so cold, but do you shut down the government for 800,000 people at the expense of 320 million Americans? That’s really what you’re looking at.”
Democratic U.S. Rep. Joaquin Castro of San Antonio said the best chance to pass immigration legislation is this year amid the urgency of must-pass spending bills.
“Once the Congress gets beyond that, it will become harder to leverage support for DACA into successful legislation,” he said.
U.S. Rep. Lloyd Doggett, D-San Antonio, said in a statement that he won’t support spending legislation next week absent a DACA fix.
“Republican leadership wants to use the successes of our Dreamers as a bargaining chip for President Trump’s anti-immigrant Christmas wish list – building an unnecessary border wall, separating immigrant families, targeting sanctuary cities, and more,” Doggett said.
San Antonio Republican Will Hurd faces growing pressure to buck GOP leadership. His North San Antonio office was the target of a protest on Thursday organized by the Texas State Teachers Association. The associations says about 2,000 DACA recipients are teachers in Texas.
“At a time when Texas has a teacher shortage and a majority of Texas students are Hispanic, these teachers have a special ability to connect with their students and show them the importance of education,” TSTA President Noel Candelaria said.
Hurd, who represents a predominantly Hispanic district, was appointed by Ryan to a working group assigned to come up with a negotiated solution. He recently joined 33 other Republicans in a letter to Ryan urging action by year’s end. He didn’t respond to request for comment.
Congress thus far has been immune to protests by DACA recipients and their advocates on Capitol Hill that have grown in size and frequency.
On Tuesday a group called United We Dream erected a Jumbotron screen on the National Mall, in the view of Ryan’s west-facing office. Their “DreamActTron” is running videos of stories about young immigrants who entered the country illegally.
Nor has Congress responded to pleas by industry leaders, the latest Thursday from the unlikely duo of Apple CEO Tim Cook and Koch Industries CEO Charles Koch.
Co-writing an opinion piece in the Washington Post, Cook and Koch challenged Congress to “show the courage to embrace diversity and to do what is right. We have no illusions about how difficult it can be to get things done in Washington, and we know that people of good faith disagree about aspects of immigration policy. If ever there were an occasion to come together to help people improve their lives, this is it.”
On the Senate floor Wednesday, Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., who over the years has told stories about Dreamers’ challenges, presented a detailed look at the life of Carla Martinez of San Antonio, who’s among more than 120,000 DACA recipients in Texas.
Martinez, 24, who was born in San Luis Potosí, Mexico, excelled in school soon after arriving in Pflugerville at age 8. Alongside poster-size photos of Martinez, Durbin told colleagues how she’d been an honor student in high school and graduated last spring with a civil engineering degree from the University of Texas at San Antonio without the benefit of Pell Grants or other assistance that is unavailable to DACA recipients.
“She often had to choose between food and buying books,” Durbin said.
In an interview, Martinez, an engineer-in-training at the M&S Engineering New Braunfels branch, said she plans on getting an MBA and hopes one day to establish a scholarship program to help others.
“As time goes by, I get closer to losing my career, my job and my income,” she said.