NOEL KING, HOST:
Today, the Supreme Court will hear oral arguments about whether to protect from deportation around 700,000 people who were brought to this country by their parents illegally when they were children. The program is called Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA. It was an executive action issued by President Obama in 2012. President Trump tried to rescind it in 2017. His administration argues that it has the right to cancel DACA because it's illegal and unconstitutional. Now, lower courts have disagreed. That's why it's now in the Supreme Court.
Democratic Senator Dick Durbin is one of the architects of legislation to protect these young immigrants who are known as DREAMers. And he's on the line from Capitol Hill. Good morning, Senator.
DICK DURBIN: Good morning.
KING: So will DACA survive this challenge in the Supreme Court, do you think?
DURBIN: Well, of course, it depends on a vote in the Supreme Court. And most of the spotlight is on Chief Justice John Roberts.
KING: Because he would be sort of the deciding vote.
DURBIN: He was the deciding vote on a Census Bureau case that came before the court recently. His logic and reasoning in that case, we believe, he may be leaning in our direction. But you can't assume a thing.
KING: OK, fair enough. President Trump tweeted this morning that if the Supreme Court overturns DACA, quote - this is the president - "a deal will be made with Dems for them to stay" - end quote. Now, them, he's referring to the young immigrants, the DREAMers. What do you think of the president's outreach there?
DURBIN: I can just tell you that experience dictates my response. The president and the people around him are not interested in helping these young people. I think of the likes of Jeff Sessions, now gone, Stephen Miller, Kirstjen Nielsen, John Kelly - they went out of their way to find a way to eliminate this DACA program, which protected 790,000 of these young people. They had temporary protection, two years at a time - come forward, criminal background checks, pay a hefty filing fee, keep your nose clean and come back in two years. It was a good program that President Obama put together. And although President Trump teased us early in his administration that he was going to help these young people, when the time came, he abolished it.
KING: OK. We should remind listeners, as you just alluded to, that Congress did not pass DACA. It was an executive action - excuse me - from President Obama. Even he said this wasn't meant to be a permanent solution. It was meant to sort of buy some time for lawmakers to come up with legislation that could pass. Does the failure to protect DREAMers then lie with Congress? Is this Congress' responsibility here?
DURBIN: Well, I would say, of course, Congress was challenged by the president to come up with a law. Bipartisan groups came together. I joined with Senator Lindsey Graham. We presented personally to the president in the Oval Office a bipartisan alternative to this executive order. And it was rejected. And then a group of senators on their own apart from us, Democrats and Republicans, came up with their own compromise. The president rejected it as well. He would never take yes for an answer.
KING: OK. We will not get a decision on this until next year. But are you currently in talks with your colleagues in Congress about what to do legislatively if the Supreme Court decides that DACA should end?
DURBIN: Well, unfortunately, we're - our fate is in the hands of Senator Mitch McConnell. And under his leadership, if you can characterize it as such, there is no legislation in the United States Senate. The House of Representatives under Democratic control has passed a bill that would solve this problem, sent it over to the Senate, and Senator McConnell refuses to even consider it. I would hope if there is an unfortunate but negative decision by the Supreme Court then he would reconsider.
KING: OK. I want to ask you about those who support the Trump administration on this. John Eastman is a constitutional law professor. He filed an amicus brief siding with the administration. Here's a little bit of what he told NPR's Nina Totenberg.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)
JOHN EASTMAN: I think both President Trump and President Obama have repeatedly acknowledged that the decision about what to do with the DREAMers, the DACA recipients, really is a matter for Congress. And, you know, we would be screaming bloody murder, whether it was President Obama or President Trump, who just started writing laws himself, that they then subsequently enforced.
KING: So he's pointing to this, again, being an executive action. Does he have a point here?
DURBIN: No, not at all.
KING: Why not?
DURBIN: Consider this reality - 11 million undocumented people in the United States. Every president has to make a priority decision. Whom are we going to carefully watch? Who will we deport? And, of course, we want to make sure that anyone who's a danger to the United States is high on that list. Certainly, it would not include the 790,000 young people. They've gone through a criminal background check. They've established themselves in this country as good, productive people. So all the executive order of DACA said, by President Obama, is they will not be a priority. A president can make that decision. And I think - I hope that the Supreme Court reaches that same conclusion.
KING: OK. And lastly, President Trump has previously offered a continuation of temporary protections for the DREAMers in exchange for funding for his border wall. Would you agree to that under any circumstances?
DURBIN: Well, of course, that was our proposal that he rejected. The president says we want Congress to work with us. We - Lindsey Graham and I said, here it is, Mr. President, over a billion dollars more for your fence and protective status for those under DACA. He rejected it. And here's the reality - the president has gone into many accounts - some of us think illegally - and transferred billions of dollars that he cannot even spend in the next 12 months for this fence. He has plenty of money for it. And this is no longer a viable excuse.
KING: OK. Lots of skepticism there. Senate Minority Whip Dick Durbin of Illinois. Senator, thank you for being with us.
DURBIN: It's good to be with you.
KING: All right. I want to bring in NPR's John Burnett, who covers immigration. Hi, John.
JOHN BURNETT, BYLINE: Hey, Noel.
KING: OK. So what stood out to you about what Senator Durbin was saying there?
BURNETT: Well, I think the sort of uphill fight they're going to have, if this goes back to the Congress, because, as he said, there had already been a deal to trade wall funding for a DREAM Act for some sort of permanent legalization for the DACA recipients. And that failed. So now what would be on the table? For instance, there could be more interior enforcement, cuts to legal immigration, try to eliminate asylum, ramp up money at the border. And so, you know, how do we see a deal between Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer, on the one hand, and then Stephen Miller on the other, especially with all the tribalism going on over impeachment?
KING: Yeah, you could sort of hear that in the senator's voice. He didn't sound particularly optimistic. I know lastly, John, that you have been talking to some of these young people, the DREAMers. And I wonder, what have they been telling you? There's a lot on the line for them right now.
BURNETT: Oh, it's incredible, Noel. There's a - there's almost a desperation. I mean, they've been hanging in limbo now since 2012, since this was first passed by the Obama administration. I talked to one of the young DREAMers who was waiting in line in front of the Supreme Court waiting to get a seat this morning in that public gallery. She's Michele Segura (ph) a 25-year-old grad student in business administration. She works as a college counselor in LA.
MICHELE SEGURA: You know, there's nine people in the Supreme Court who are deciding the fate of 700,000 people, myself included. I've been living - since 2017, since the Trump administration rescinded DACA, I've fallen into depression, and everything is just on the line.
BURNETT: So they're really just waiting to see if finally they can get some regularization and some order to their status here in the United States.
KING: That was NPR's John Burnett.
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