In January, Senate Democrats were so concerned about the plight of the nearly 700,000 people brought to the U.S. illegally as children — more than 4,400 in Ohio — that it contributed to their decision to shut down the federal government.
But events since then have moved the status of the so-called “Dreamers” to a congressional back burner. Last week the U.S. Supreme Court decided not to weigh in on whether those immigrants should be allowed to stay, which effectively keeps the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program in place — at least for now.
The deaths of 17 people at a mass shooting at a Florida high school in mid-February has pushed aside the DACA issue even further.
“I don’t think it’s dead,” Rep. Joyce Beatty, D-Columbus, said of legislation protecting Dreamers from being sent back to their countries of origin. “I just think for today, and right now, (we’re focused on) the 17 lives lost.”
The high court’s decision to decline a case dealing with DACA leaves open the question of whether President Donald Trump’s decision to rescind the Obama-era program was legal.
It also creates something of a holding pattern for the young immigrants who are hoping they can stay.
“By next year, we don’t even know if DACA will be there,” said Nathali Bertran, 25, of Columbus, who was brought to the United States from Lima, Peru, at age nine by her parents.
Her DACA status expires in the summer of 2019, and she’s been weighing whether she should reapply now in case there isn’t a chance when she’s up against the deadline.
When Trump rescinded DACA, he gave Congress six months to arrive at a solution. That deadline is today, March 5.
Many Dreamers expected to know their future by now. But with no legislative remedy in sight, their uncertain status continues.
“There may be no future,” said Bertran, an engineer at Honda in Marysville. “That’s my day to day, every single day.”
By bringing the case to the Supreme Court, the Trump administration had attempted to skip over the famously left-leaning 9th Circuit Court of Appeals. Two lower courts had earlier blocked the government from ending the program.
But by saying an appeals court should hear the case first, the high court effectively kept the program in place while its legality wends its way through the court system.
Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, said those who are currently DACA beneficiaries can stay in the program, but the program will not accept new applicants for the time being.
“What the Supreme Court did was essentially say, ‘This is going to be kicked down the road for at least six months, if not nine months to a year,” Portman said.
Both Republicans and Democrats in Ohio’s congressional delegation say the immigration program needs to be fixed. The issue is how to fix it.
Rep. Bill Johnson, R-Marietta, said he’d consider a DACA extension but only if the measure also tightened border security, eliminated the visa lottery program and eliminated chain migration, which allows people to bring extended family members to the United States.
Johnson said the Supreme Court’s decision not to take up the case may have actually increased the urgency to move forward “because now the Supreme Court is not going to decide it.”
“To me, it seems like this has put it back over into executive and legislative hands and we’ve got to get going,” he said.
Sen. Sherrod Brown, D–Ohio, said he’ll continue to push to renew DACA. He recently attended a White House meeting where Trump joked with him about the program, saying Brown and other Democrats didn’t want to renew it. Brown said he didn’t find it funny. The kids he talks to have “huge anxiety” about their futures, he said.
For his part, Portman has pushed a bill that would legitimize the DACA program as well as provide some federal dollars to secure the border — short of the money needed to put up a border wall but enough to make it more secure.
Portman tried to get the bill on the floor in mid-February without success, but now that other immigration measures have stalled, he’s pushing it again.
“I think if we can keep it to those simple issues and get it done, it would be good for our country, good for these young people who have so much uncertainty right now about their future, and we can go back then and work on the broader immigration issue,” he said.
Rep. Steve Stivers, R–Upper Arlington, said despite the approaching election — election years are notorious for being legislative black holes — he still believes Congress will act.
“For these individual kids, it means the world,” Stivers said. “It means being able to work, to go to school, to live their lives or not. I want to help and I think we should.”
Columbus Dispatch reporter Danae King contributed to this story.