Like two football teams afraid of reaching the end zone, congressional Republicans and Democrats find themselves in a perpetual punting game on the subject of immigration. Promises abounded that immigration would receive a fair debate in Congress before a key March 5 deadline, but they were made only because Republicans needed Democratic votes to win approval of the spending package that kept the government open on Friday.
The Democrats have sacrificed the one element of leverage they wielded to ensure promises were kept. Their major concern is the expiration of protections for young undocumented immigrants, known as Dreamers, whose parents smuggled them here as children and who now face deportation.
Friday's spending bill passed without any Dreamer-protection measure. The central issue is DACA, the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program imposed by President Barack Obama to halt deportation of immigrant youths. President Donald Trump canceled Obama's order, setting a March 5 deadline for Congress to pass a new DACA plan.
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., seized the House podium for eight hours Wednesday to chide both sides not to punt on the Dreamers issue again. "Man up. ... We honored our commitments," she told House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., on Thursday. In the end, members punted anyway.
After Friday's spending vote, Ryan restated previous promises not to kick the issue back down the road. But Republicans now feel far less pressure to yield their hard line on immigration. GOP incumbents are fearful, especially with midterm elections approaching, of being labeled by primary challengers as being "pro-amnesty" if they favor any measure that appears to grant protected status to any undocumented immigrants.
An estimated 690,000 youths registered under DACA and placed their trust in the U.S. government that they would not be punished for coming out of the shadows. An estimated 1.1 million additional qualified immigrant youths did not register.
White House Chief of Staff John Kelly, who previously oversaw immigration enforcement as Trump's first Homeland Security secretary, told reporters Tuesday that the 1.1 million who didn't apply did so because they were too afraid or "too lazy to get off their asses."
It was a boneheaded remark by a chief of staff with a growing penchant for bad judgment. The remark served to sour any cooperative mood rather than advance the president's agenda, which Trump says is to extend DACA protections provided Congress can come up with a plan.
Rather than laziness, it's far more likely that the 1.1 million who didn't register realized the deportation danger faced by those who stepped forward and handed over their addresses and other vital information to the government. The goal should be to encourage immigrants to step up and get right with the law. Kelly is doing his best to drive them back underground.