How likely is the US Congress to pass a substitute for DACA to protect DREAMers?

Counting the Republican votes.
Counting the Republican votes.
Image: Reuters/Aaron P. Bernstein
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Republicans in the US Congress have for years procrastinated on determining the fate of some 800,000 immigrants who were brought to the US illegally as children.

Now president Donald Trump has given them six months to come up with a substitute for the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, an Obama-era program that allowed those immigrants to temporarily stay and work in the US. These immigrants are known as “DREAMers,” named for the Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors (DREAM) act that was introduced in the Senate in 2001 and has been stuck ever since.

The pressure is greater than ever. Trump, who promised to end DACA as a candidate and later danced around the issue as president, has channeled Americans’ attention to the program. Now everyone seemingly has an opinion on it (including environmental group Environmental Defense Fund, which in a statement admitted immigration is not its expertise, but nevertheless condemned Trump’s end to DACA.)

Will the spotlight make it easier, or more difficult, for lawmakers to reach an agreement to protect DREAMers?

The decision will be mostly up to Republicans, who control the two chambers of Congress. Democrats, who largely favor giving DREAMers legal status, can’t do anything on their own.

Assuming all Democrats vote “yes,” it wouldn’t take many Republicans peeling away from their party to reach the number of votes needed to approve one of several bills that would give DREAMers some kind of protection. In the House, where Republicans control 241 out of 435 seats, 24 of them would have to side with Democrats. If introduced bills are any indication, they’re more than half way there: 19 Republicans have cosponsored bills that would offer DREAMers some kind of relief.

In the past years, the ranks of Republican House representatives who have taken a stand on the issue has grown. The chart below shows votes related to DACA (in 2014 and 2015, they voted “nay” on laws that would defund the program; in 2010 “yes” on the Dream Act, which would have granted DACA recipients a path to permanent residency.)

More recently, Trump’s decision appears to be tipping the balance in favor of DREAMers. In the past, House speaker Paul Ryan has been strict about blocking any legislation that the majority of Republicans didn’t approve. (Until now, the DREAM Act and others similar to it could be considered in that category.) But in past days, Ryan has indicated he might be willing to put partisanship aside by publicly saying that Trump shouldn’t end DACA.

The latest DACA-related votes in the Senate suggest that support for that legislation is waning there. Here are the Republican votes to consider the DREAM Act in 2007 and 2010 (yeses,) and legislation to defund DACA (nays) in 2014. (The data were pulled for Quartz by NumbersUSA, a group that advocates for limiting immigration and keeps track of immigration-related votes in Congress.)

But DREAMers have more Republican allies in the Senate than that record indicates. Three Republican senators have sponsored or signed on to bills to replace DACA; another, Thom Tillis of North Carolina, is putting together a separate bill. Others, such as Arizona senator John McCain have publicly said that DREAMers shouldn’t be deported.

Others have also spoken against terminating DACA, including Utah senator Orrin Hatch, and Oklahoma’s James Lankford. A dozen Republicans are needed to pass something in the Senate.

If Republicans are willing to leave partisanship aside, they might find they have enough votes.