Democrats demanded Thursday that Congress quickly pass legislation guaranteeing immigrant “Dreamers” a full pathway to citizenship, giving the issue an election-season push a day after a federal court left them in limbo.
Immigrant-rights groups vowed to elevate the issue to the top of voters’ minds and saw a way to recapture momentum on immigration, which has been a devastating issue for Democrats amid the chaos of the southern border.
“This is going to be a huge issue in the upcoming midterm,” said Sergio Gonzalez, executive director of the Immigration Hub. “If Republicans hope to make any inroads with Latinos in the future, which I’m doubtful they can do, we need to get a deal on DACA.”
The Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, created by President Obama in 2012, currently protects 600,000 immigrants who came to the U.S. illegally as children, pursued an education and kept a relatively clean criminal record.
The 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals this week ruled that Mr. Obama cut too many procedural corners in creating the program, running afoul of the Administrative Procedure Act.
The three-judge panel sent the case back to a lower court to evaluate an updated policy the Biden administration released earlier this year. And in the meantime the judges left in place a stay allowing current DACA recipients to remain in the program.
SEE ALSO: Cruz, Graham warn Mayorkas to prepare for impeachment
Activists said that leaves them in limbo, and they had little hope they’ll fare better in the lower court. Indeed, they are already expecting to lose again, and said that’s why voters need to take the reins.
“We must use the midterm elections to send a clear signal that we support Dreamers,” said Maria Teresa Kumar, president of Voto Latino.
The issue is already popping up in key Senate races.
Rep. Val Demings, a Democrat who is challenging Republican Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, touted her own support of legislation to protect Dreamers. It has cleared the House, but hasn’t seen any action in the Senate.
“The current legal limbo must end. The Senate must act to remove this issue from the courts and pass permanent protections for Dreamers,” she said.
Mr. Rubio has backed legislation in the past to grant legal status to a wide swath of immigrants without documentation, but in recent years has taken a harder line on immigration, blasting the Biden team’s handling of border security.
SEE ALSO: Migrants become targets for robbery, sexual assault on U.S. side of border
DACA could also become an issue in close Senate races in Nevada and Arizona. They, along with Florida, are all in the top six states for Hispanic population.
Mr. Gonzalez, speaking on a phone call with reporters, said illegal immigration is a deeply personal issue for the country’s Latinos, a quarter of whom have a relative who is in the country illegally.
Activists said that could blunt gains the GOP has made with Hispanic voters.
Republicans were largely silent on the DACA ruling, but have said they would be open to a deal, as long as it also included measures to get control of the border.
President Trump offered such a deal in 2018, proposing citizenship for DACA recipients along with funding for his border wall and some other changes to narrow the paths for future legal immigration based on family relationships and a chance lottery.
Democrats rejected that idea, saying Mr. Trump was offering too little on legal status while demanding too much on the enforcement side.
Democrats had tried to shoehorn an immigration-legalization plan into their budget bill. Budget legislation can pass without needing to surmount a filibuster, which meant if all Democrats stuck together they could force it through.
But the plan ran afoul of parliamentary rules, and Democrats shied away from a confrontation with the chamber’s rule keeper.
Before this week’s ruling, Republicans had been counting on immigration to be an electoral winner for them, given the unprecedented level of illegal immigrants and dangerous drugs such as fentanyl crossing the southern border.
The parties have sparred over how much immigration moves voters, though Democrats believe they’ve generally had the better of the issue.
A decade ago, President Obama used the creation of DACA to help bolster his standing among Hispanic voters. Polls had shown him slumping among the critical demographic early in 2012, but his announcement that June helped bring many of them back, and he ended up winning Hispanics by the largest margin of any presidential candidate since President Clinton’s reelection bid in 1996.
Mr. Trump ate into the Hispanic vote in 2016 and again in 2020, despite taking a tough line on illegal immigration.
Among those efforts was an attempt to phase out DACA altogether. That was halted by the Supreme Court in 2020, which said the Trump administration cut too many corners in revoking it.
The 5th Circuit, in this week’s ruling, said Mr. Obama also cut too many corners in creating the program through a Homeland Security memo.
The judges sent the case back to a lower court to review an update the Biden administration released earlier this year, which did go through the full regulatory process. That update closely tracks the original DACA program.
This week’s ruling signaled that the new Biden policy could face more legal hurdles. The court said DACA seems to stretch beyond the powers Congress, which controls immigration policy, envisioned for the Executive Branch.
“There is no ‘clear congressional authorization’ for the power that DHS claims,” wrote Chief Judge Priscilla Richman.
Advocates said that language gives them little hope Mr. Biden will prevail.
“The legal writing is on the wall,” said Karen Tumlin, founder of Justice Action Center.