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Top Democrat Says Election Will Decide DACA's Fate

Sen. Dick Durbin of Illinois, the Senate's No. 2 Democrat, now says that the fate of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program will be determined by the upcoming midterm elections.
J. Scott Applewhite

Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., has long led the push to provide a permanent legal status for "DREAMers" — young adults in the United States illegally who were brought to the country as children.

Durbin was in the mix on multiple bipartisan deals in recent months, as the clock ticked toward a March 5 expiration of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, which President Trump decided in September 2017 to end.

But with Congress still gridlocked on DACA and the Supreme Court refusing to intervene in two federal cases negating that deadline, the Senate's No. 2 Democrat seems to be throwing in the towel.

"This election, the election of new members to the House and Senate, will decide the fate of this issue," Durbin told NPR's All Things Considered on Wednesday.

Earlier this week, the Supreme Court rejected a Trump administration request that it take up DACA. Two lower courts have blocked the government from ending the DACA program. With the cases likely to take months, if not more than a year, to possibly make their way back to the highest court, DACA will remain in place for the extended future.

Until the lower courts had blocked DACA's expiration, Congress had been working to make DACA permanent by the March 5 deadline. While the program itself enjoys broad support among Democrats and Republicans, Trump and GOP leaders had insisted that any measure making it permanent also include money for a border wall, as well as restrictions on future legal immigration.

Two weeks ago, multiple immigration measures were brought to the Senate floor for votes, but all failed to earn the 60 votes needed to stay alive. Two narrow measures came close, but President Trump tanked their chances by threatening to veto any immigration measure that did not include his legal immigration demands.

Trump's preferred measure got less support than anything else the Senate voted on that week.

"We learned something during the course of this [debate], and it was unsettling," Durbin told NPR. "We learned what the president's real priorities were. The president said, 'Let's help these young people. We need to do something to fix DACA.' And yet given that opportunity, he rejected it. It turns out this debate wasn't about a wall, it was about a new immigration policy in America; it was about rejecting the notion that we are a nation of immigrants."

Durbin was one of the lawmakers in the Oval Office when Trump used vulgar language to refer to African countries during a meeting about a bipartisan DACA fix. Anger over that statement — and over Trump's refusal to consider a narrow DACA bill — led to a brief partial federal government shutdown, when Democrats voted down a short-term spending bill.

"Who knew when we got into Trump presidency that we would reach a point where Sen. McConnell would feel compelled to bring this matter to the floor and give us a week's time," Durbin said of the promise the majority leader made to Democrats to end the stalemate. "We managed to reach that point and so we had our chance — we came close but not close enough to win."

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Scott Detrow is a political correspondent for NPR. He covers the 2020 presidential campaign and co-hosts the NPR Politics Podcast.
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