RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
The program known as DACA pulls well across the political spectrum. The majority of Democrats and Republicans say they support protections for immigrants who were brought to this country illegally as children. Even so, their future is still up in the air. The Supreme Court hears arguments next week on whether the Trump administration can end DACA. NPR's Joel Rose traveled to Nashville to explore the disconnect between popular support and political reality.
JOEL ROSE, BYLINE: Immigration is so contentious that we can't even agree on the basics, like what to call people who are in the country illegally.
CHARLIE KIRK: Undocumented sounds like a clerical error. Illegal is someone who broke a law to come into America.
ROSE: That's Charlie Kirk, a conservative commentator with more than a million Twitter followers, debating with a staffer from a traveling exhibit called "Common Ground."
KIRK: It makes it seem like they lost something in the mail.
UNIDENTIFIED EXHIBIT STAFFER: Person without status, whatever you want to call it.
ROSE: We're all in Nashville at an event called Politicon. Think Comic-Con but for politics. The folks behind "Common Ground" brought their exhibit here to a convention of political junkies to prove a point - that Americans have more in common on immigration than they think.
JORGE LIMA: Which is a surprising truth to most people who believe that we're so divided on immigration that we can't even talk about it.
ROSE: Jorge Lima is vice president for immigration at Stand Together, one of the nonprofit groups that organized "Common Ground." The exhibit is a series of doors. Behind each one is a big TV screen that plays a short video about immigration. The first door in the exhibit is about DACA.
(SOUNDBITE OF EXHIBIT, "COMMON GROUND")
EVELYN MARQUEZ: My name is Evelyn Marquez (ph). I was born in Mexico. I was brought to the United States when I was 7 years old.
ROSE: DACA is short for Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals and protects immigrants like Evelyn Marquez, who were brought to the country as kids, the so-called DREAMers. The Obama-era program shields about 650,000 of them from deportation and allows them to work here legally. And it has broad support, even among rank-and-file Republicans.
TJ DEARMAN: I support DACA. Let's not make the kids political tools.
RACHEL HARRINGTON: I don't think that we should just deport them to a country that they've never known.
ROSE: That is T.J. Dearman from Jefferson, Ga., and Rachel Harrington from Nashville, wearing a Trump 2020 T-shirt. Charlie Kirk, the conservative commentator - he has sympathy for the DREAMers, too.
KIRK: I think that you're seeing a lot more Republicans say - look. The DREAMers, that can be part of the negotiation. But how about we solve the crisis permanently at the southern border so that there's not, in 20 years, another DREAMer crisis?
ROSE: DACA shows how hard it is to forge consensus on immigration right now. The Trump administration is trying to end the program, which it considers illegal. And the Supreme Court may clear the way for that to happen. Meanwhile, Congress still can't agree on a way to protect the DREAMers. And there's a smaller but vocal faction in the Republican Party that thinks they don't even deserve protection, including Sidney Kee of Clarksville, Tenn.
SIDNEY KEE: At this point, I'm getting so aggravated with the illegal immigration I'm saying let them apply - back of the line - wait their turn. And if they need to be deported in order to wait their turn, deport them.
ROSE: Still, there are powerful forces in Republican politics that do want to see a compromise that protects DREAMers - the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, for one, and the Koch network. Yes, those Kochs - the libertarian billionaires who've been accused of using their wealth to buy the American political system. Their donor network supports the three nonprofit groups that organized the "Common Ground" exhibit, which travels this week to Washington, D.C.
LIMA: We're not pretending that we're going to suddenly take, you know, someone from a very harsh anti-immigrant point of view then - voila - there's big aha moment, everything changes.
ROSE: Again, Jorge Lima with Stand Together.
LIMA: What could change is the way they engage in the conversation. And so the other person no longer becomes an enemy but becomes someone that maybe they can work with.
ROSE: Congressional Democrats have offered a compromise - a pathway to citizenship for the DREAMers in exchange for billions of dollars in border wall funding. President Trump has said he wants to find a way to help the DREAMers. But he's walked away from several possible deals after taking heat from immigration hard-liners who oppose what they call amnesty - people like Ann Coulter.
ANN COULTER: I'm going to keep trolling him and attacking him until he fulfills his promises to the voters.
ROSE: The conservative author was at Politicon in Nashville, too. Coulter wants to hold Trump to his campaign promises, including ending DACA on, quote, "Day 1."
COULTER: Part of the reason so many people came out to vote for Trump is that he seemed crazy enough that he might actually keep his promises.
ROSE: Hundreds of people packed the convention center's auditorium to see Coulter. Afterwards, a few stopped to look at the "Common Ground" exhibit, but most kept on walking.
Joel Rose, NPR News, Nashville.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.