Congress turns sights toward immigration

2017-10-12 | Laurel Leader

Oct. 12--LAKELAND -- President Donald Trump brought renewed attention to immigration with a letter he sent Sunday to Congress reaffirming his demand for a wall along the border with Mexico.

Meanwhile, the clock is ticking on a deadline for Congress to create a replacement for a program enacted by his predecessor that gave protections to young Americans brought illegally to the United States as children.

When Trump rescinded the Deferred Action for Children Arrivals program last month, he gave Congress six months to craft a new system for accommodating the 700,000 recipients of Deferred Action for Children Arrivals benefits, a group often called "Dreamers."

So now, with the clock ticking toward the end of Trump's six-month deadline, what are the prospects of legislation that would spare the Dreamers from rejoining the ranks of illegal residents in danger of deportation?

U.S. Rep. Darren Soto (D-Kissimmee), a leading advocate for Dreamers, said it all depends on the Republican leadership in Congress.

"I believe we have a narrow majority of members in Congress who would support a 'Dream Act' or something like it, comprised of all the Democrats and two dozen or so Republicans," Soto said by phone from Washington, D.C. "The key will be whether or not they'll get to the floor, and certainly we expect there to be a package of some border-security aspects, should one (bill) get to the floor."

Polk County's other two representatives, both Republicans, say they are sympathetic to the plight of DACA recipients, though they put more emphasis on the need for toughened border security.

Dennis Ross (R-Lakeland) stressed the need for restricting the flow of illegal immigrants across the nation's southern border.

"We in the 15th District understand why so many immigrants seek to come to this country, which is exactly why we need to have a sensible system in place that secures the border and protects Americans from criminal activity," Ross said by email. "My concern is that we need to document all those who are here so that we can account for them."

Rep. Tom Rooney (R-Okeechobee), whose district extends north to Highland City, said the fate of Dreamers must be addressed as part of wider immigration reform, and that is a complicated task.

"As Congress deliberates these matters, I am hopeful that we can find a consensus that balances the need to prioritize border security and visa enforcement, rewards those who come here legally and ensures that children who came to this country through no fault of their own are not unfairly punished," Rooney said in an email. "Until the federal government acts to secure the border and enact real immigration reform, I fully support the rights of states -- including Florida -- to take action to protect their borders and enforce the laws of the land."

President Barack Obama established DACA by executive order in 2012. The program offered protection from deportation and allowed recipients to receive driver licenses and work permits that could be renewed every two years.

Those benefits were available to immigrants who had come to the country before age 16, were under age 31 and had committed no major crimes, among other requirements.

Nearly 800,000 residents nationwide attained DACA status, and Florida had the fourth-highest number of recipients. The Migration Policy Institute estimated that 8,000 Polk County residents met the program's criteria, though the number who applied and were approved is not known.

Soto, who has Puerto Rican ancestry, has adopted the travails of Dreamers as one of his signature issues. His district, covering Kissimmee, Haines City and southern Orange County, has a high Latino population.

"We're talking about tens of thousands of kids in Florida, including many in Polk County," Soto said "They're going to Polk State (College). They're starting new businesses. They're ambitious kids, and that's what really continues to drive me is that I believe this is the right thing to do for both our country and for them."

Like many Republicans, Rooney and Ross say Obama exceeded his presidential authority in creating the DACA program. They supported Trump's decision to rescind Obama's order.

"It is unfortunate that President Obama decided to overstep his executive powers and sidestep Congress to create the DACA program in the first place," Rooney wrote. "He had two years with a Democrat-controlled Congress during which he could have enacted immigration reform legislation, yet instead he decided to impose one-off immigration policies through unconstitutional executive orders."

Ross made a similar point.

"The problem with the DACA program was that it short-circuited the legislative process and plunged recipients into a world of legal uncertainty," Ross said. "I absolutely support the president's push to resolve this situation legislatively and ensure that our immigration system is based on a solid foundation, not executive fiat."

Soto said the votes exist to pass the Dream (Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors) Act, or something like it. But would House Speaker Paul Ryan, a Republican, allow voting on a bill opposed by most Republicans?

"Speaker Ryan's been all over the place," Soto said. "He's said he supports the Dream Act, but then he has been in office for well over a year as speaker ... and has not brought it to the floor, so it's hard to tell."

Trump met last month with Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and talked afterward of an agreement on an immigration deal. That drew rebukes from many conservatives.

Along with his demand for funding to build a border wall, Trump seeks to deny federal funds to so-called sanctuary cities, which fail to assist with enforcing federal immigration laws; make it harder for immigrants to gain asylum; revert to a policy of quickly sending unaccompanied minors from non-border countries back home; and shift from family-based to merit-based preferences for legal immigrants.

Rooney described our immigration system as "broken" and in need of Congressional repair. He said one element that must be addressed is the creation of "a functioning agricultural guest worker program."

Soto seemed disappointed but not surprised by Trump's missive to Congress, which he described as "predictably hard right." He said he hopes it is merely an opening step in negotiations that include a measure keeping protections for Dreamers.

Soto, a member of the bipartisan "Problem Solvers Caucus," said he agrees on the need for improved border security, such as more sensors to detect when someone crosses over from Mexico.

"A lot of us are interested in having increased custom and border patrol, like has been requested by both President Obama and now Trump, but we see a wall as unnecessary and overly costly, with a price tag of over $26 billion," he said. "And we also see it as very divisive. It's almost a symbol of division for a lot of us."

Trump repeatedly pledged during the 2016 campaign that Mexico would pay for construction of the border wall. Mexican leaders have rejected that idea, and Trump has raised the prospect of taxing money transfers from the United States to Mexican residents to cover at least part of the cost.

In his response to questions from The Ledger, Rooney didn't specify where he thinks money for a border wall should come from.

Ross said the wall is an urgent priority that should be funded.

"I support the president's call for stronger border security, which has included a wall," Ross said. "I even offered legislation, called the Finish the Fence Act, to help achieve that goal. Funding for border security should come as part of the regular appropriations process and ought to include whatever support the Mexican government is able to offer."

Gary White can be reached at gary.white@theledger.com or 863-802-7518. Follow on Twitter @garywhite13.