Updated: Jan 4, 2022
Jan. 27, 2018
WASHINGTON — The Trump administration’s newly released plan to resolve the fate of young immigrants who arrived in the country illegally as children would constitute the biggest change to immigration policy in decades, putting Democrats and their allies in a painful vise.
The proposal would provide 1.8 million young immigrants a path to citizenship, many more than the 690,000 currently enrolled under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, known as DACA, that had served as a baseline for plans by both parties to provide them permanent legal status.
In exchange, the administration wants major new border and interior immigration enforcement, and a commitment for a $25 billion “trust fund” for President Trump’s promised wall on the southern border to Mexico as part of the deal.
But the biggest battleground may be Trump’s proposal to limit future family-based visas to spouses and young children, eliminating an immigrant’s ability to sponsor parents, siblings and adult children.
These family visas have formed the foundation of U.S. immigration policy since 1965, were reaffirmed in the last major immigration overhaul in 1990, and profoundly altered the nation’s ethnic composition.
Eliminating future family visas could eventually cut legal immigration — now 1.2 million people each year — in half.
Sen. Kamala Harris D-Calif., speaks during a rally in support of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), and to avoid the government shut down on Capitol Hill, Friday, Jan. 19, 2018, in Washington. ( AP Photo/Jose Luis Magana)
Democrats are under intense political pressure to protect immigrants who arrived in the country as children and were raised as Americans, including those who were eligible for DACA but did not enroll, some out of fear of revealing themselves to federal authorities.
But the party also deeply opposes limits on legal migration, especially based on family ties. If the young immigrants get a reprieve, experts said, it could come at a dear cost to others who come from other nations to live in the U.S.
“The administration intended DACA to be a chip that they were going to play from the very beginning to extract other concessions on immigration,” said Tony Payan, director of the Mexico Center at Rice University’s Baker Institute.
Having canceled the DACA program last fall, Trump set a March 5 deadline for Congress to replace it. Although a federal judge issued an injunction to keep the program alive pending higher court review, the young immigrants stand to lose their right to work, travel and attend school. They could eventually face deportation. Lawmakers in both parties, fearing an adverse court ruling either way, insist on a permanent legislative fix.
“I think the Trump administration is perfectly capable of arriving to March 5 and not having a deal,” Payan said.
Payan compared the DACA fight to a game of chicken in which Democrats keep swerving to avoid a crash. He said the administration’s willingness to use the young immigrants as leverage to get what it wants and the Democrats’ desperation to provide them legal status means Democrats “will get very little in exchange and the administration will get quite a lot.”
The extended-family visas are vitally important to many Asian and Latino Americans, said John Trasvina, dean of the University of San Francisco Law School and former president of the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund.
“The major reason we have had growth in the Asian American population in the United States and here in San Francisco is because of the brother and sister preference,” Trasvina said.
Originally intended in 1965 for Irish and Italians, the brother and sister visa became the one for Asian and Latin Americans, Trasvina said.
“And we see them. We see them in California. The U.S. citizens who have brothers and sisters back home are Latino and Asian Americans,” he said.
In exchange for 1.8 million visas for the young immigrants already in the country, he said, the White House plan would be “cutting off family members forever.” It would “change the demographics of immigration, more so than any other change we’ve had in the last 50 years.”
Ultimately, the fate of the young immigrants lies with a divided Congress that for 16 years has failed to grant them permanent protection. The Trump plan appears designed to unify Republicans and peel off enough Democrats to navigate its way through the GOP-dominated House and the narrowly divided Senate, where Republicans would need nine Democratic votes for passage.
White House officials indicated that they expect Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., to use their plan as the starting point for debate, potentially thwarting efforts by a bipartisan group of moderates to develop a much narrower proposal.
Immigration hard-liners Sens. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., and David Perdue, R-Ga., welcomed the administration’s plan. “We all want a good deal, and here it is,” Perdue said.
Sen. Lindsey Graham, a moderate Republican from South Carolina whose bipartisan plan met a profane rejection by Trump a week ago, applauded the proposal. He said Trump’s support for a citizenship path for the young immigrants will help seal a deal.
“I have never felt better about our chances of finding a solution on immigration,” Graham said.
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-San Francisco, lashed out at the plan, calling it “an act of staggering cowardice which attempts to hold the ‘Dreamers’ hostage to a hateful anti-immigrant scheme.”
But Democrats have little power to dictate legislation in the House.
Immigrant groups were also critical.
The White House is trying to “to exploit the desperation of Dreamers to try to enact an overhaul of our immigration system that we haven’t seen for 100 years,” said Frank Sharry, executive director of America’s Voice, a pro-immigration group. Trump, he said, “is not going to get away with taking a wrecking ball to the Statue of Liberty.”
For immigration restrictionists, the Trump plan is far too generous. In addition to awarding what they see as a colossal amnesty for young immigrants, the plan would terminate extended-family visas only for future applicants. They say it could take years to whittle down the backlog of 4 million family visa applications, putting no quick end to what they call “chain migration.”
“To wait almost two decades before there’s any reduction in legal admissions is absurd,” said Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies, a group favoring limits on legal immigration.
Rep. Zoe Lofgren of San Jose, the ranking Democrat on the Judiciary Committee’s immigration panel, and other House Democrats want their chamber to vote on a bipartisan bill to protect the same number of immigrants as under Trump’s plan but make no changes to family visas.
Lofgren said confusion about who can get a family visa is clouding the debate.
“People seem to think that there’s a grandparents visa,” Lofgren said. “There is no grandparents visa. There is no cousin visa. ... It’s a very difficult environment to make progress when there’s so much misinformation.”
The bipartisan House bill, backed by GOP Reps. Jeff Denham of Turlock (Stanislaus County) and David Valadao of Hanford (Kings County), both of whom have large Latino populations in their districts, would likely pass with support from nearly all Democrats and a few Republicans.
But House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., has promised not to put any immigration bill to a vote that does not have support from a majority of Republicans.
Democrats “are not in a good bargaining position, in spite of the Trump administration’s low popularity,” Payan said. “The Democrats don’t know how to play these games very well and I think they’ve shown that.”
Carolyn Lochhead was the Washington correspondent for the San Francisco Chronicle, where she covered national politics and policy for 27 years. She grew up in Paso Robles (San Luis Obispo County) and graduated from UC Berkeley cum laude in rhetoric and economics. She has a masters of journalism degree from Columbia University. Twitter: @carolynlochhead