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Sen. Dick Durbin On Finding A Bipartisan Deal To Protect DREAMers

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

There was more brinksmanship in Washington today. President Trump said he'd love to see another government shutdown if Congress can't quickly produce immigration legislation he's willing to sign. And Obama-era DACA protections for undocumented immigrants brought to the country as children are set to expire in about a month on March 5.

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

In short, the pressure is way up in Washington for lawmakers to achieve an immigration deal. So today, I went to Capitol Hill to get perspective on all this from the man who first brought this debate to Congress.

Senator.

DICK DURBIN: Hi, Ari, good to see you.

SHAPIRO: Good to see you too.

Senator Dick Durbin of Illinois is one of the most powerful Democrats in Washington, and he has been working to secure protections for the people we now think of as DREAMers for 17 years. In fact, their nickname comes from the DREAM Act legislation Durbin introduced.

DURBIN: In 2001, if I talked about DREAMers, people thought it was a British rock group. And now, the word DREAMers turns up in the president's State of the Union address. We have NBA athletes wearing T-shirts that say, we're dreamers, too. It's become a national cause, and it should.

SHAPIRO: Durbin says he doesn't expect another government shutdown or an immigration deal this week. So as we sat in his office this morning with a portrait of Lincoln overhead, I asked, how do you see this ending?

DURBIN: Well, I see it beginning at the end of this week because a promise was made by Senator McConnell when we had the temporary shutdown, and he said, I'll bring this to the floor, quote, "on a level playing field" open to amendments from both sides on immigration and DACA. That means the possibility that we could open the debate procedurally this week and engage in it next week. Let me quickly add - 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: House Speaker Paul Ryan said today that the House will not consider any bill that does not have the president's support. And you have often seen bipartisan deals from the Senate die in the House. How do you make sure that whatever clears this chamber doesn't reach a dead end in the other chamber?

DURBIN: There's no guarantee. We saw that with comprehensive immigration reform when we passed it with a very substantial bipartisan vote in the House of Representatives, and then Speaker Boehner refused to even consider the bill. For years, it sat there. That's five years ago. And so that's within their power to do nothing, but March 5 deadline imposed by President Trump is looming. He created that deadline. As of March 5, 1,000 of these DACA-protected young people will lose their protection literally every day for two years. It means they are subject to deportation. They cannot legally work. They cannot complete their education. Many of them will have to leave our military where they've volunteered to serve our country. It will be a dire situation created by President Trump.

SHAPIRO: So if as you say there's no guarantee that the House will take up whatever the Senate might pass, to return to the earlier question, how do you see this resolving?

DURBIN: Well, I'm hoping that we can come up with a good bill here. And I'm hoping that it also includes provisions that will force the speaker to at least submit it to consideration in the House of Representatives. If he doesn't, then come March 5, this ominous deadline created by President Trump, the Republicans will bear the responsibility for what follows.

SHAPIRO: Have you asked President Trump to change that deadline, or do you think the deadline is useful for lawmakers who need some kind of pressure to get something done?

DURBIN: Honestly, the president's - several different occasions - said several very different things about that deadline. I've heard him say personally, well, we'll just extend it. Then I heard his chief of staff as of today announce there would be no extension of the March 5 deadline. I don't know where the president stands on this.

SHAPIRO: Would you like to see him extend it?

DURBIN: No, of course not. I believe we need to solve the problem. And if extending it means we just prolong the agony of these young people and their families, that's unfair.

SHAPIRO: That sounds like using these young people as a bargaining tool.

DURBIN: That is exactly what's happened here. The president has created them as hostages in the situation where he is demanding massive changes in our immigration policy. Why would he do this to these young people? He used to praise them for the first six or eight months of his presidency - you know, dynamic, great, young people. He told me personally we're going to take care of those kids first time I ever spoke to him. I mean, all of these things point to the fact that his heart was in the right place. Things have changed.

SHAPIRO: We're talking about a situation where young people will suffer if there's no deal. And you want to deal, Republicans say they want a deal, but Republicans also say if there's no deal, we will consider postponing the deadline so young people don't suffer as much. Why wouldn't you say yes to that?

DURBIN: Well, I'd like to say yes to it if they postpone it beyond the Trump presidency because right now this president has come up with no proposal to save these young people from the fate that he is responsible for sending them. So what I'm looking for is something that gives them some future, some certainty, that they do have a path to legal status and citizenship.

SHAPIRO: We're in a situation now where there are roughly a dozen, give or take, different proposals for immigration between the House, the Senate, various working groups. Do you think that's a sign that an answer is nigh, or is it a sign that people are all over the map on this?

DURBIN: The conversation's underway, and the parameters of this debate I think are fairly obvious. We're not talking about something with the complexity of the Medicare system. It is complex. Our immigration policy has always been complex, but I think it's within our grasp. I really do believe it. If we start with the twin pillars of a path to citizenship for these young DACA and DACA-eligible and border security that the president is looking for, that is a good phase one solution. When you start going beyond that, penalizing parents, talking about family unification, diversity visas - gets really complicated.

SHAPIRO: And do you think hard-liners, whether it's the Freedom Caucus in the House or an adviser like Stephen Miller in the White House, would agree to something like that that does not address the four pillars the White House has laid out?

DURBIN: No.

SHAPIRO: So that sounds like you've reached a standstill.

DURBIN: It's up to one man - the president of the United States.

SHAPIRO: To override his advisers...

DURBIN: Absolutely.

SHAPIRO: ...And the more extreme Republicans in the House.

DURBIN: He is in charge. He's the commander in chief. He created this challenge. He can resolve it.

SHAPIRO: Do you think he will?

DURBIN: I don't know. On any given day, I'm never sure. I've talked to this president within the last few weeks on days when I thought, good, we've got a path to getting this done and done the right way. Then two days later, it completely blew up in my face, so I just don't know what to expect from him.

SHAPIRO: I was going to ask whether you think 2018 will be the year that this finally gets resolved after your 17 years of working on it, but it sounds as though you're saying you have no idea.

DURBIN: It's resolved in the minds of the American people. They know what's right. They know what's just, and they know what we should do. If the politicians don't respond, I'm afraid that they'll pay a price for it.

SHAPIRO: Every day, roughly a hundred DACA recipients lose their coverage. So we talk about this March 5 deadline, but in the meantime, thousands of people no longer have the protections they did. How does that change the debate?

DURBIN: Well, it makes it very personal. If you take the time - and I take plenty of time to sit down with them - it's heartbreaking to hear what's going to happen to their lives. They've become very emotional, as anyone would, but then they start talking about their parents, and they're even more emotional to think that their parents might be penalized even worse because of their good fortune of being legalized. Imagine what that would mean to a young person, what it would mean to any of us if they said, we're going to take care of you. Sadly, your mom and dad are going to have to leave the country. That is an unacceptable outcome.

SHAPIRO: How would you feel about this becoming the signature legacy issue? You've served many, many years in the Senate and been involved with many pieces of legislation. But it's hard for me to think of one that has been quite as long and involved as this one.

DURBIN: Well, I think about my predecessor, Paul Douglas, who said when I was a young man, I wanted to save the world. When I got elected to Senate, I wanted to save Illinois. In the end, all I wanted to save were the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore. And I feel that way about the DREAMers. I've had aspirations in life and still do on a lot of issues. But if at the end of this struggle these DREAMers are given a fighting chance to be part of America, it's a battle well worth fighting.

SHAPIRO: Senator Dick Durbin, Democrat of Illinois, thank you for joining us.

DURBIN: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAURA GIBSON SONG, "HANDS IN POCKETS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.