The Supreme Court’s ruling in the DACA case is likely to detonate in the middle of the presidential campaign, and those on both sides of the issue say even if he prevails with the justices, it’s not likely to be pretty for President Trump.
No matter what the outcome, it will create a major political headache just as the campaign kicks into full swing.
If the court approves Mr. Trump’s phaseout of the Obama-era deportation amnesty, then it will create a challenge. He can follow through with the phaseout, enraging immigrants and their families, who account for millions of voters. Or he can suspend the phaseout and work with Congress on a bill to legalize the “Dreamers,” which would anger his own base of support.
If the court rules against his phaseout — which analysts said was less likely — then the justices will have given the president a road map for a do-over. Mr. Trump would then face the same choice to pursue the phaseout, angering immigration rights activists, or give up on the issue, irking his political supporters.
“Killing a popular program like DACA is a liability to the Republicans, regardless of how the court rules, and the timing of the court’s decision puts it squarely in the middle of the 2020 campaign cycle,” said Douglas Rivlin, communications director at America’s Voice, a leading immigrant advocacy organization. “Stephen Miller and Jeff Sessions really forced the GOP’s hand on this, and it is not likely to play out well in 2020.”
Mr. Miller is a top aide to Mr. Trump and is seen as the architect of his immigration policy. Mr. Sessions was the attorney general who crafted the legal strategy behind the phaseout of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program.
The justices heard oral arguments on the case Tuesday, and Mr. Sessions’ reasoning was front and center. The court must decide whether his reading of the law was enough of a reason for the Department of Homeland Security to end the program, which the Obama administration started in 2012.
At stake are more than 600,000 illegal immigrant “Dreamers” who are protected by DACA, giving them a stay of deportation, work permits, driver’s licenses and access to some taxpayer benefits.
Mr. Trump has said he wants to grant Dreamers a more permanent status in the U.S. In early 2018, he proposed a bill that would have done so, coupled with money for his border wall and stricter limits to the chain of legal family immigration.
Democrats rejected those conditions and instead demanded a legalization bill without stricter enforcement or tougher immigration limits.
In the stalemate, Mr. Trump said he would wait for the court’s ruling. He figured Democrats would be willing to deal once the justices rule his phaseout legal.
He doubled down on that strategy Tuesday, though he also took a swipe at some Dreamers.
“Many of the people in DACA, no longer very young, are far from ‘angels,’” he said in a Twitter message. “Some are very tough, hardened criminals. President Obama said he had no legal right to sign order, but would anyway. If Supreme Court remedies with overturn, a deal will be made with Dems for them to stay!”
Those on both sides of the debate said that will put the president in a tricky spot.
Rosemary Jenks, vice president of NumbersUSA, which backs stricter limits, said there is no way Congress would pass a limited bill for Dreamers at this point.
Meanwhile on Tuesday, Democrats demanded that any bill must go beyond Dreamers to include hundreds of thousands of other illegal immigrants as part of a legalization.
Ms. Jenks pointed out another wrinkle: Jared Kushner, the president’s son-in-law who has been working on a massive immigration overhaul, is eyeing a chance to marry his proposal to a Dreamer legalization bill. That could further complicate negotiations because his proposal would likely irk many in Mr. Trump’s base who don’t want another surge of legal immigrants either.
Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies, said he expects Mr. Trump to prevail at the Supreme Court and win the right to phase out DACA.
“But then what?” he wondered.
He said one way for Mr. Trump to avoid a campaign season crunch would be to postpone the phaseout to the end of the year — until after the election.
“They could say that this situation could have been resolved by Congress by now, but given the uncertainty caused by the meritless litigation by anti-borders groups, and also given that the ruling came in the middle of an election campaign, DHS could announce that work-permit renewals will be processed through the end of the year,” he said.
At that point, “work permits will begin to expire at an average rate of about 1,000 a day, and Congress will have to do something about it.”
Polling shows overwhelming support for Dreamers.
One survey sponsored by an immigrant rights group this summer found support for citizenship rights at 77%, with just 18% opposed.
“Regardless of how the Supreme Court rules, Dreamers need and deserve permanent protection,” said Rep. Jerrold Nadler, New York Democrat and chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, which would oversee any legalization bill. “They are American in every way except a piece of paper.”
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