By Alexander Bolton - 12-01-16 16:56 PM EST
Democratic and Republican members of the Senate Judiciary Committee are working on legislation that would limit deportations if President-elect Donald Trump repeals President Obama's executive orders on illegal immigration.
Senate Democratic Whip Dick Durbin (Ill.) and Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), both members of the panel, are crafting a bill to shield children living in the country illegally from being deported if they grew up in the United States and have stayed out of trouble.
The bill is likely to have the support of another Republican on the committee, Sen. Jeff Flake (Ariz.). He was a member of the so-called Gang of Eight that put together the comprehensive immigration reform bill that passed the Senate in 2013.
Trump has vowed to repeal Obama's executive orders that halted deportations for people who came to the country illegally at a young age, as well as deportations of the parents of citizens and lawful permanent residents.
Lawmakers are worried that rescinding those orders would pull the rug out from hundreds of thousands of young people whose parents immigrated to the country illegally. Many of them may have to drop out of school, lose their jobs or face deportation.
Durbin and Graham say they are especially vulnerable because they applied to the government for protection under Obama's executive order, known as Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA).
They are discussing legislation that would give these immigrants temporary protection from deportation or loss of academic and job opportunities until Congress passes more comprehensive legislation addressing the status of undocumented residents.
"Sen. Graham and I discussed it again this morning and we hope to even have this bill ready before we leave next week, a bipartisan effort to say to the new president, 'give these young people a fighting chance,' " Durbin said on the Senate floor.
Graham says he's trying to avoid the potential chaos of hundreds of thousands of residents having their lives disrupted.
"You can't blame these kids for coming here, you can't blame these kids for coming out of the shadows. They're out of the shadows and now we know who they are. If we cancel the executive order, what happens to them? We deport them all?" Graham said.
He noted that people who commit felonies would not be eligible for protection.
Flake, whose home state is 31 percent Hispanic and has been a major portal of immigration in recent years, predicts Congress will have to do something. He wants to work on a solution with the incoming Trump administration instead of attempting to simply countermand an executive order reversing Obama's action.
"I'm having a discussion with Graham," Flake said. "My preference is to work with the administration on something here. Obviously, it's going to involve legislation."
He said Obama's executive order was unconstitutional but added, "I do want to protect kids that were brought here."
Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), who in 2005 cosponsored a bill sponsored by Durbin to grant legal status to children brought to the country illegally by their parents, said she's sympathetic about the disruptions they face. The children, many of whom are now young adults, are often referred to as "Dreamers" because of that legislation, known as the Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors (DREAM) Act.
"I am sympathetic to people who are brought here when they were very young and often have known no other country," she said. "That doesn't mean that we don't need to tighten our immigration laws, but the Dreamers are in a different category."
But right now it looks like the sponsors are well short of the 14 Republican votes they would need to overcome a filibuster in the lame-duck session - or the 12 Republican votes they would need next year, after Democrats gain two seats.
Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), the co-author of the Senate's comprehensive immigration bill of 2013 and a cosponsor of Durbin's DREAM Act in past Congresses, said Thursday that any bill protecting people who came to the country as children from deportation should be included as a part of a broader reform package.
"We've got to do comprehensive immigration reform of which the Dreamers would be a part. We need not to just address Dreamers, we need to address comprehensive immigration reform. It would need to be part of it," he said.
McCain added that he would prefer not to move a standalone bill such as Durbin and Graham envision.
Durbin told reporters Thursday that he would like to get the bill moving before the 114th Congress adjourns later this month, but he acknowledged it won't likely pass before next year.
Incoming Senate Democratic Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.), the other co-author of the 2013 comprehensive immigration reform bill, argued when Democrats controlled the Senate that Dreamers should be addressed as part of a broader reform effort.
On Thursday he said he would support Durbin and Graham's measure because Trump's plan to rescind an executive order threatened to create a crisis.
"We believe in comprehensive reform but this deals with an executive order that the president did," Schumer said.
Graham and Flake predict more Republicans will sign onto the bill as the issue gains more public attention.
"I think we'll have a lot - I think if President Trump says this is a good solution to a hard problem," he said. "Here's what you got to ask Republicans and Democrats: What do you do with these kids?"
Graham and Flake say the main objection Republicans had with Obama's executive orders was that he circumvented Congress. By passing legislation, the problem would be handled in a constitutional way, they argue.
Former Sen. Dick Lugar (R-Ind.), who supported Durbin's DREAM Act when he served in the Senate, said he hopes his fellow Republicans will sign onto the measure.
"In the past there were Republicans who cosponsored this. Dick Durbin was a champion of his on several occasions and I worked closely with him," he said.
Lugar said Republican lawmakers "may be helpful to the president" by finding a workable solution.