A top Republican senator has challenged Donald Trump to make “a moral decision” on the fate of hundreds of thousands of undocumented immigrants brought to the US as children, part of a revamped bipartisan push to grant permanent residency to so-called Dreamers.
“The moment of reckoning is coming,” South Carolina senator Lindsey Graham warned the president and his Republican colleagues at a press conference Thursday to unveil a new iteration of legislation known as the Dream Act.
Graham was joined by Illinois senator Dick Durbin, the Democratic cosponsor of the bill who first introduced legislation of the same name 16 years ago.
Their proposal, which mirrors previous legislation that failed to pass Congress multiple times, would grant legal status and a path to citizenship to Dreamers if they were longtime residents of the US.
In a sign of tough odds facing the bill, the White House swiftly rejected the notion that the president would support such a measure.
“The administration has opposed the Dream Act and we are likely to be consistent in that,” said Marc Short, the White House legislative affairs director, in an off-camera briefing with reporters on Wednesday.
Graham acknowledged the president’s candidacy was rooted in a hardline approach to immigration but cast the debate as an existential question for the party that now controls the White House and both chambers of Congress.
“President Trump, you’re going to have to make a decision,” Graham said.
“The campaign is over.”
“The question for the Republican party is, what do we tell people?
How do we treat them?” he added. “Here’s my answer: we treat them fairly. We do not pull the rug out from under them.”
Graham and Durbin have for more than a decade spearheaded prior efforts on immigration.
They were most notably part of the so-called “Gang of Eight”, a bipartisan group of senators that crafted a comprehensive immigration reform bill in 2013.
The measure, which would have granted a path to citizenship for the roughly 11 million undocumented immigrants living in the US, overwhelmingly passed the Senate but died amid steep opposition from conservatives in the Republican-led House of Representatives.
The 2017 Dream Act, likes its predecessors, focuses on those undocumented immigrants who were brought to the country illegally as children.
In order to qualify for legal status, under criteria laid out in the draft text of the bill, the immigrants must pursue higher education, work lawfully for at least three years, or serve in the military.
They must also undergo a background check, show proficiency in English, and pay a fee. Anyone convicted of a felony or other serious crimes would be ineligible.
“We don’t believe that young people should be held responsible for the errors or the illegal actions of their parents,” Durbin said.
“They’ve grown up pledging allegiance to this flag, singing the Star-Spangled Banner and it’s the only country they’ve ever known.”
In addition to addressing the status of Dreamers, the new legislation seeks to restore the authority of states to grant in-state tuition rates to undocumented immigrants.
A 2010 version of the Dream Act failed to advance in the Senate under Barack Obama, who ultimately took executive action in 2012, granting temporary legal status to Dreamers.
More than 720,000 young immigrants have been approved under the Obama administration’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, commonly known as Daca.
Trump vowed as a candidate to rescind Obama’s order on “day one” of his presidency, but has thus far kept it in place.
Immigration advocates have nonetheless feared the new administration’s harsh deportation tactics could soon reach Dreamers.
The Department of Homeland Security admitted in April to deporting one Daca recipient, 23-year-old Juan Manuel Montes, the first known case of a Dreamer deported under Trump.
Adding to the uncertainty is a legal challenge against Daca brought by Texas attorney general Ken Paxton and Republican officials in nine other states.
With attorney general Jeff Sessions, who ranks among the fiercest public opponents of immigration, at the helm of the Justice Department, immigration advocates worry the program may well meet its end. John Kelly, the secretary of Homeland Security, told the Congressional Hispanic Caucus last week he believed Daca was unconstitutional.
Durbin acknowledged Trump had been ushered into office in an “anti-immigrant climate”.
But he said Republican senators have privately told him they are open to finding common ground on the question of Dreamers.
An emotional Graham said he first became engaged on the issue of immigration at the request of his close friend John McCain, the Arizona senator who made public on Wednesday his diagnosis with brain cancer.
Graham said he spoke with McCain three times by phone on Thursday morning, in which his closest ally’s message amounted to: “No more ‘woe is me’.”
“He is yelling at me to buck up,” Graham said. “So I’m going to buck up.”
“I’ve stopped letting 30% of the people who are mad about immigration to determine how I behave … When they write the history of these times, I’m going to be with these kids.”