Arkansas Republican Sen. Tom Cotton, who after the departure of Jeff Sessions has emerged as the Senate's leading immigration hawk, says he would support the legalization of all current DACA recipients -- nearly 700,000 of them -- if Congress would at the same time pass measures to protect Americans workers from the effects of that legalization.
DACA, which stands for Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, was created by President Obama's unilateral decision to shield from deportation and grant work permits to people who were brought illegally to the United States as children. On Tuesday, Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced that the Trump administration is rescinding DACA, effective six months from now. That leaves it up to Congress to decide the next step for the nation's so-called Dreamers.
"We ought to take care of them," Cotton said in a recent telephone conversation, noting that DACA recipients arrived in this country illegally, "through no fault of their own."
"In any legislative fix, I would like to see them receive a green card," Cotton said. At the same time, he continued, "We ought to recognize that giving them legal status has two problems. First, it creates a whole new class of people who will then be eligible for a green card and citizenship -- namely, the extended family members of those who will receive legal status who can, through chain migration, get legal status themselves."
"Second," Cotton said, "it will encourage more illegal immigration."
The first problem can be fixed by passing the RAISE Act, Cotton said -- the bill Cotton has sponsored with fellow GOP Sen. David Perdue that would strictly limit chain migration as well as re-balance current immigration policy in favor of skilled immigrants.
The second problem could be addressed by extending E-verify across the country, which Cotton called "the best way to reduce more illegal immigration."
Cotton has conferred with President Trump and with White House staff on best way to move beyond DACA. Cotton said the president's instincts are that DACA, imposed by Obama with no action from Congress in what many Republicans felt was an unconstitutional overreach, would not have been defensible in court.
Sessions said the same Tuesday when he noted, "If we were to keep the Obama Administration's executive amnesty policy, the likeliest outcome is that it would be enjoined (by a court)."
That was important because the attorneys general of several states threatened to sue the Trump administration if the president did not do away with DACA. Trump's action, announced by Sessions, makes any such lawsuits beside the point. And now, it throws the ball straight into Congress' court. What will it do about those 700,000 soon-to-be-former DACA recipients?
That is where the negotiating comes in.
Will Senate Democrats, not to mention Republicans who favored the Gang of Eight comprehensive immigration reform bill, actually vote for the RAISE Act -- which some have already said they oppose -- in exchange for legal status for Dreamers? It's not at all clear. Would they agree to extending E-verify? Also unclear.
So far, most of the Republican lawmakers who have spoken out about DACA are supporters of comprehensive immigration reform -- Sens. Lindsey Graham, Thom Tillis, and Jeff Flake, as well as Reps. Mike Coffman and Carlos Curbello. And, of course, Speaker Paul Ryan, who has called on the president not to end DACA, even though Ryan once described the program as "blatantly unconstitutional."
But the vast majority of Republican lawmakers have not been heard from. Most are united in their belief that President Obama overstepped his authority by instituting DACA. They believe the action would not survive court scrutiny. They believe they have to do something to accommodate current DACA recipients while not making the overall immigration problem worse. And after Trump's action, it seems unlikely they would revive and codify the program without also enacting some significant reform of the immigration system.
DACA, Cotton said, is "a mess of President Obama's making." But now it's up to Republicans to clean up that mess. "We should find a way to give (DACA recipients) legal status," Cotton concluded, "but we also have to mitigate the inevitable consequences of that action."
Byron York is chief political correspondent for The Washington Examiner.