How to Save Time and Energy When Reading Immigration Headlines

Congress = signal; White House = noise

Oct 11, 2017

Keep your eyes on these guys.

The White House just announced a set of “Immigration Policy Priorities” that it wants Congress to enact. Headlines blared (as headlines do) that dramatic changes to the U.S. immigration system may now be on the table. (See: White House makes hard-line demands for any ‘Dreamers’ dealTrump demands border wall funds for Dreamer proposalTrump links border wall, green-card overhaul to DACA; etc.)

But let’s be clear: All the White House did was re-publish an existing wish list. (And it’s a long list—if you’re into primary sources, here’s the summary and here’s the whole menu including border wall constructionstepped-up deportations, and big cuts to family-based and refugee immigration.)

The fundamental facts of immigration lawmaking haven’t changed, though:

  • Congress won’t pass major laws (on immigration or most anything else) without a serious deadline staring them in the face.
  • The biggest immigration deadline on the horizon is March 5, 2018: That’s the end date for DACA (“Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals”), when the first of 690,000 undocumented immigrants who were brought to the United States as children (“Dreamers”) start to have their work permits and deportation protections revoked. Pretty much all Democrats and plenty of Republicans want to avoid that.
  • No immigration law reaches the President’s desk unless it has 60 votes in the Senate. That means Democrats and Republicans have to work out a bipartisan deal, and that means nobody gets everything they want.
  • The role of the White House is limited—the President and his aides can try to influence members of Congress one way or the other, but ultimately their only hard bargaining chip is a veto threat.
  • So far, no veto threat. (“[W]e’re not discussing what’s a veto threat right now,” said the senior administration official briefing reporters.)

In short, nothing has really changed since President Trump decided to end DACA last month and effectively shifted the entire dealmaking dynamic to Congress:

  • Even a highly motivated Congress may still end up taking no action at all.
    If Congress passes anything, it will be a narrowly-focused deal that mostly pairs Dreamer relief with border security. That’s the deal being negotiated among Senators, because it has a chance of attracting 60 votes—at which point the President would almost certainly sign the bill into law and call it a win.
  • Members of Congress still face a complex negotiation to hammer out the details. (If you’re interested, here’s an in-depth summary of all the variations on Dreamer relief that are currently on the table. And here’s one Republican Senator’s recent proposal to tack on some less-extreme border security and immigration enforcement measures. Other options will continue to be discussed behind closed doors.)

Everything else is noise. The White House can heckle, but Congress still holds the cards.

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