Two years ago this week, the Senate voted on four different immigration bills—three that proposed permanent fixes for Dreamers and one on sanctuary cities. Each failed to reach the 60-vote threshold for passage. Later this year, the Supreme Court is expected to rule with the Trump administration in favor of terminating the DACA program, ultimately triggering a chaotic election-year fight over Dreamers, immigration reform, and border security. 

Much has changed in the 735 days since the Senate last took up this contentious issue, but advancing a DACA deal still remains unlikely. Here are five developments to the politics and policy around DACA since the last showdown in the upper chamber. 

#1: Asylum and Central America

The biggest change in the U.S. immigration debate in the last two years has been the increase in asylum seekers and the administration’s near-complete shutdown of the southern border to Central Americans. 

While the administration proposed asylum-related changes back in 2018 — such as increasing the “credible fear” standard, ending the Flores agreement, and limiting asylum eligibility — the issue failed to break through for most members of Congress and the American people. But with caravans becoming a flash point in 2018 and record numbers of apprehensions throughout 2019, asylum emerged as a major policy and legal fight. 

The administration has been extremely active in working alongside other countries to reconceptualize U.S. asylum policy through the Migrant Protection Protocols (MPP) and Asylum Cooperative Agreements (ACA). And while apprehensions have dropped from their highs, we can expect numbers to creep up once again come spring — although at a lower rate. 

This matters for DACA because about 60,000 Dreamers came from the Northern Triangle countries of El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras that are driving the asylum crisis. As I have explained before, the worsening instability in these countries will only be exacerbated by DACA deportations. Those countries are incapable of handling integrating thousands of deported Dreamers back into their country if DACA is terminated. 

Some lawmakers may want to address asylum in an upcoming DACA deal, but taking on that contentious issue might further complicate the already sensitive DACA and border security pairing. Pursuing a narrow DACA solution remains the best option politically to advancing a compromise. 

#2: The urgency increases once the court rules 

With a DACA decision pending at the Supreme Court, the urgency to get a deal has evaporated. That will change the second the court issues its ruling. Renewed and fervent momentum around DACA will pick up instantly and Congress will have new urgency to avoid the reality of 700,000 DACA recipients losing their job—6,000 per day. 

Congress doesn’t work without deadlines. Negotiators don’t get serious until the real-life ramifications of policy change or inaction are squarely in front of them. The Supreme Court’s decision on DACA will immediately bring the issue to the forefront of national politics and will make lawmakers have to at least begin discussing the issue more seriously. 

Adding fuel to the urgency fire is a recent quote from Acting Director of ICE Matthew Albence, who said:

“Those individuals may have DACA, but that doesn’t prevent us from going through the removal process, such that, the individual at the end of the process, if they get ordered removed, and DACA is done away with by the Supreme Court, we can actually effectuate those removal orders.”

Rolling back work authorization is one thing; deporting Dreamers is another, more drastic development. The DACA issue has been dormant but that will change come this summer. 

#3: Election-year politics 

The last DACA fight ended eight months before the 2018 midterm elections. This DACA showdown will come a few months before a presidential election. The Trump campaign continues elevating immigration and border security as a core issue of the president’s reelection. Furthermore, a handful of Senate seats up for grabs in contested states will determine the tilt of the Senate come 2021. 

No issue has dominated the politics of the Trump era more than immigration, and we can expect that to continue through November. The termination of DACA will no doubt become a major fight of reelection campaigns and that could very likely hamper the potential for compromise. 

Democrats want no part in handing the president a “win” on the Dreamer issues months before an election. For Trump, meanwhile, firing up his base may prove more strategic electorally than joining with Democrats to provide any amount of border security funding if that comes with protecting DACA. Those calculations could stymie efforts to advance compromise legislation.

However, not taking on DACA this summer is a gamble. 

For Republicans, the possibility of a Democratic president means they would no longer control the narrative coming out of the White House. And with control of the Senate uncertain, their best chance at getting the most out of DACA negotiations could be this year. 

For Democrats, a Trump reelection would ensure a weaker hand in negotiating immigration than they have now. And even if President Sanders or Warren or Biden takes office, without a filibuster-proof majority in the Senate they may not be able to pass immigration reform. 

We can’t rely on a change in administrations either way — plus thousands could lose their status in the meantime. DACA will be coming to an end regardless of who wins in November. The question that will remain is whether Congress can act to protect those DACA recipients who have been living and working with status for years. 

Finally, the Democrats winning the House back in November 2018 significantly strengthens their bargaining position in this debate in 2020, compared to the 2018 fight. They have already passed Dreamer legislation but their bill won’t ever see floor time. 

#4: We know the White House supports citizenship 

In the last Senate fight, the White House offered four pillars to any immigration deal they would support: DACA certainty, border security, eliminating the diversity visa, and limiting chain migration. Iowa Sen. Chuck Grassley introduced the legislative version of the White House plan: the Secure and Succeed Act. 

That bill included a pathway to citizenship for almost two million Dreamers. With White House support, a total of 39 Republicans voted in favor of the legislation. It was the most hard-line bill considered—touching on numerous aspects across the entire immigration system—and it drew zero Democratic votes and was rejected by a chunk of Republicans. It received the fewest votes of the four bills voted on that week. 

Still, 39 Republican senators and the Trump White House backed a bill with a pathway to citizenship. This vote undermines the narrative that a pathway to citizenship is off the table for Republicans—even the most staunch conservatives. 

Sure, maybe the White House and GOP senators only backed the bill because they acknowledged the legislation’s other provisions ensured it wouldn’t have the votes to pass. Regardless, 39 Senate Republicans are now on record voting for citizenship and that is a major development. 

With that being said, the White House was the largest obstacle to a deal last go around as they proposed multiple poison pills, undermined productive negotiations, and offered shocking press releases to tank fruitful compromises. They were the the ultimate wild card then and still are. But their support of the Secure and Succeed Act did place 39 Republican senators on record supporting citizenship, and that’s an important takeaway even considering the other unsavory policy proposals in the bill.

#5: Negotiators and staffers feel burned by compromise 

The upside of negotiations like those that occurred last time is the increased likelihood of a deal. The downside is that failure left a bad taste in the mouths of lawmakers and their staffers, who worked long hours, came to difficult decisions, and ultimately fell short of consensus. 

I have spoken with numerous staffers involved in the 2018 DACA negotiations who report they felt burned by the process. They stepped out on a controversial issue and don’t have much to show for it. Going back to the negotiating table two years after that experience doesn’t sound like a worthy investment of time for many—one that they must do given a court ruling but that feels less productive that it did previously. 

Democrats are more reluctant than ever to deal with a White House they view as negotiating in bad faith. Republicans are worried about being out of step with the White House on whatever they decide they want to push for in a DACA negotiation. 

That being said, the renewed urgency from the Supreme Court will spur many to action. It doesn’t take many stories in local newspapers about the school teacher who lost her job, the nurse who was let go, or the father who was deported for this issue to take on new national significance. 


Sometime this spring or summer the Supreme Court will rule on DACA and the issue will roar back into the headlines. Shortly following the initial chaos will be the rescission of work authorization for hundreds of thousands over two years. 

Much has changed in the last two years but a core American political truth remains: finding congressional consensus on immigration is almost impossible. Does 2020 change that? We’re all about to find out.