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Sen. Dick Durbin Weighs In On Path Forward For Immigration Reform


Now, we're going to revisit an issue that consumed Washington a month ago and then seemingly fell off the radar - legal protections for undocumented immigrants who came to the U.S. as young children known as DREAMers. The Senate held a week-long debate and votes. For Dick Durbin, the Democratic senator from Illinois, this seemed like it could fulfill a mission he'd been working on for 17 years. I visited him in his office just as that debate was about to begin in early February, and he felt optimistic.

DICK DURBIN: The United States Senate has not seen this kind of debate in over a year and a half. Many of the members have never seen it, so I'm looking forward to it. It really goes back to the Senate as I remember it.

SHAPIRO: Durbin's optimism was misplaced. While there was bipartisan support building, the White House began to apply pressure. President Trump said he would only agree to protect DREAMers in exchange for significantly cutting legal immigration, as well as funding border security.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Shall call the roll.



SHAPIRO: And as lawmakers voted on one proposal after another...



SHAPIRO: ...It became clear that none of the bills would get the support of 60 senators.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN: On this vote, the yeas are 54, the nays are 45. The motion is not agreed to.

SHAPIRO: Today, I went back to Senator Durbin's office on Capitol Hill, and he told me about the moments following those votes.

DURBIN: I went around the floor to senators who have stood by me. For some, it's easy. For others, it is painful. It's dangerous politically. As I went up to their desks - and many of them were up for re-election - I said thank you, and several of them said to me, if this cost me my Senate seat, so be it. You know, those are moments you're proud to be a senator.

SHAPIRO: Proud but disappointed. Some DREAMers did get a reprieve, though. Courts decided that those with short-term protections under the DACA program can renew their status while legal challenges play out. That means President Trump cannot end DACA on March 5 as he had promised. So this morning, I asked Senator Durbin whether that means Congress is less likely to act since it no longer has a firm deadline.

DURBIN: Well, in a way, it helps, but yet, it complicates the situation. It helps because it gives immediate relief to those who have seen their DACA status expire. They can go on and apply again if they were once covered by DACA. And as the expirations take place, others can do the same. It doesn't open up the opportunity for those who were newly eligible to join in. But there is some relief, some protection, on a temporary basis for those who once had DACA protection. But on the complications side, it delays the inevitable. We know that at some moment a court can make an opposite decision. An injunction can be lifted. A court can make a decision saying the president can go forward with abolishing DACA. So the uncertainty, the long-term uncertainty, is still there.

SHAPIRO: And in terms of Congress, we know that lawmakers often need deadlines to do anything. Does losing that March 5 deadline remove pressure from Congress to pick this back up again?

DURBIN: We're just humans in addition to being politicians. When we have a deadline, whether it's April 15 or that appointment with the dentist, we get really serious about it. And now we don't have that deadline in the same way that we did before the court decision.

SHAPIRO: Legislatively, strategically, what's your next move?

DURBIN: We have to wait on the White House. We learned something during the course of this, and it was unsettling. We learned what the president's real priorities were. The president said, well, let's help these young people. We need to do something to fix DACA. And yet, given that opportunity, he rejected it. It turned out that this debate was not 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. Last week, one of our major federal agencies deleted that term, said we no longer want to have that as our mission statement, that America is a nation of immigrants. To deny our birthright as a nation is to really defy who we are, what we are and what we will be.

SHAPIRO: Given that if Congress passes anything in the next three years, Donald Trump is going to be the president to have to sign it into law. How do you work with him on this to get something done?

DURBIN: It's extremely difficult. You know, his goal in changing the face of immigration in America is one that I will never buy into. You know, we have a diverse nation, and that is our strength as far as I'm concerned. We come from many different places, all proud to be Americans, all working together as an American team, if you will. But we do have these background differences. And for this president to say that for the first time in 90 years he wants to dramatically cut legal immigration in America, that is a complete reversal of the policy of immigration that we've had since 1965.

SHAPIRO: I don't hear you admitting defeat here, but I also don't hear you laying out any conceivable strategy to getting this done.

DURBIN: Here's how this works now. Members of Congress, particularly Republicans, if they come to the realization that this issue is painful, hurtful or in any way threatening to them politically, may have a change of heart and want to move forward and do something. But it will take those votes and that kind of initiative for this to move forward.

SHAPIRO: Over the wishes of the White House.

DURBIN: Well, I think the White House will eventually realize the same thing. If they stand to lose critical seats in Congress, in the Senate or in the House because this issue has become more difficult and more challenging, I think the White House will begrudgingly acknowledge that they have to do something.

SHAPIRO: But you already have public opinion on your side. A CBS poll earlier this month said 9 out of 10 Americans support providing citizenship for DACA recipients. You've got the public support. What more do you need at this point?

DURBIN: And 9 out of 10 Americans are for universal background checks on guns, yet the Republican leadership in the House and Senate and in the White House have refused to take up these immensely popular issues. Their base, if you polled it, would be dramatically different. It wouldn't be 90 percent in favor on either one of these issues. They have to decide are they the party of the most extreme element of their own political party? Or are they a party that represents what America feels on these critical issues?

SHAPIRO: What do you say when you talk to these DACA recipients who I know you've been in touch with for years following the defeat that you just saw this month?

DURBIN: I've run out of words. We've been through this so many times, come so close, majority votes in the Senate over and over again. Once or twice, we were successful, and then the House didn't act. But it's heartbreaking. I mean, to think that these young people now are resigned to this uncertainty and fear in their lives on a day-to-day basis breaks my heart.

SHAPIRO: I know that you're not giving up the fight. Are you putting the fight on hold until there's somebody else in the White House or control of Congress changes or - I just don't see what there is for you to do in the next three years that would have a different outcome than what happened earlier this month.

DURBIN: Tomorrow is another day. I'm going to seize every opportunity I can find to move forward on this issue. It's a simple matter of fairness and justice in America. It is a civil rights issue. For these young people and for other immigrants, it really is a defining issue as far as I'm concerned. I'm not going to quit.

SHAPIRO: What does that mean in a scenario where Republicans control the White House and both houses of Congress and gave this a week of floor time and it still didn't get done? What does seize every opportunity actually mean in that context?

DURBIN: I don't know the answer. Who knew when we went into the Trump presidency that we would reach a point where Senator McConnell, the Republican leader of the Senate, would feel compelled to bring this matter to the floor and give us a week's time? We managed to reach that point. And so we had our chance. We came close but not close enough to win. I don't know what will happen in the House of Representatives. I don't know what lies ahead in terms of the midterm elections. But I remind all of my friends who feel as I do about this issue, this election, the election of new members to the House and to the Senate, will decide the fate of this issue.

SHAPIRO: Senator Durbin, thank you for talking with us once again.

DURBIN: Thanks, Ari.

SHAPIRO: Senator Dick Durbin of Illinois is the Democratic whip. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.