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Senator supports Dreamers order and bill to resolve their undocumented status.

FILE - U.S. Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Ore., speaks Thursday, Oct. 10, at a meeting with Pamplin Media Group reporters and editors in 2019.U.S. Sen. Jeff Merkley has praised President Joe Biden's reversal of Donald Trump's attempts to restrict immigration, including added protection for those brought to the United States illegally as children.

The Oregon Democrat also expressed his hope that upon Trump's departure from the White House, some Republicans will join Democrats in legislation to resolve the status of some of an estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants. Biden proposed legislation on his first day as president.

"Just as we passed a bipartisan immigration bill a few years ago, we had bipartisan support for Dreamers," Merkley said in a conference call with Oregon reporters six hours after Biden took his oath as president. "Maybe we can awaken and drive that same spirit once again."

Among Biden's 30 executive orders in his first three days as president, five relate to immigration — and one of them reaffirmed legal protections for young immigrants under Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, a program Trump as president tried but failed to end.

President Barack Obama set up the program by an executive order in 2012 to shield them from immediate deportation — if they met specified requirements — and let them obtain renewable two-year work permits. Trump issued an order in 2017 to end the program, but on June 18, 2020, the Supreme Court ruled that the administration failed to provide sufficient legal justification for doing so. The court ruling left the way open for a new attempt, but the administration did not pursue it.

According to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, 643,560 people were enrolled in the program as of the latest available figures on March 31, 2020.

A subsequent report by the Center for American Progress, a liberal-leaning think tank, said nearly half (45%) were from California and Texas. Oregon accounted for 9,710 recipients, who were in households with a total of 20,600 people. They generated an estimated $72 million in federal taxes and $40 million in state and local taxes.

Merkley recounted a speech earlier on Wednesday, Jan. 20, by Sen. Dick Durbin, the Illinois Democrat who is in line to lead the Judiciary Committee, which will consider a comprehensive immigration bill that Biden sent to Congress on his first day as president.

Durbin was the sponsor back in 2001 of the original DREAM Act, spurred by the request of a young Korean immigrant. Republican President George W. Bush was prepared to signal his own support of the bill until Sept. 11, 2001, when the East Coast terrorist attacks doomed its political prospects.

Trump vs. Dreamers

Durbin met Trump at a luncheon not long after Trump became president in 2017. Merkley recounted to reporters what Durbin said about that encounter on Jan. 20:

"He spoke to Trump about his desire to address the challenge that Dreamers in America experienced as children who had never known any other country. They did not speak a different language. They were Americans in every way except their certificate — and we needed to make it right with them so that they could be fully contributing members and seize every opportunity.

"Trump told Durbin four years ago at that luncheon not to worry, that he would take care of it. But he did not take care of it."

In January 2018, Durbin was among a bipartisan group of lawmakers who met with Trump and thought they had the makings of a deal. Two days later, they returned to the White House with a proposal but left empty-handed. Trump said he would support it only in exchange for $25 billion for his proposed border wall with Mexico — construction of which Biden has suspended in another order.

"He said to bring him a bipartisan policy proposal on Dreamers, he would take the heat and he would get it done," Merkley said. "He didn't take the heat, he didn't stand up, he didn't get it done."

Merkley was among a bipartisan coalition in the Senate that passed a comprehensive immigration bill on June 27, 2013, on a 68-32 vote while Obama was president. Then-majority Democrats were joined by 16 Republicans. But the bill died without a vote in the House, where Republican leaders feared that it would divide their majority.

Biden is trying again with a bill that would allow some of the 11 million undocumented immigrants, including the "Dreamers," to apply immediately for permanent legal residency. Such a status would make them eligible for green cards after paying taxes, submitting to background checks and meeting other requirements. They could apply for full citizenship after three more years; the total would be shorter than the 13 years proposed in the 2013 bill.

Fateful 2018 trip

Although Merkley does not sit on the Judiciary Committee — he is on the Foreign Relations Committee — he stepped directly into the immigration debate on June 3, 2018, during a visit to the Texas-Mexico border. He did so after he heard talk by then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions about a "zero-tolerance" policy for unauthorized border crossings, including the separation of children from their families. A staffer suggested that Merkley check it out for himself.

His first stop was to a Customs and Border Protection detention center in McAllen, Texas, part of the Department of Homeland Security. The children he saw were in 30-by-30 chain-link cages. He asked reporters across the street what they had seen, but they had been barred from entry.

His next stop was at Casa Padre detention center in Brownsville, Texas, housed in a former Walmart warehouse and run by the Office of Refugee Resettlement, part of the Department of Health and Human Services. His staff had sought advance permission, without result, for him to visit.

He never got inside. He did encounter a supervisor, who summoned police to escort Merkley off the grounds.

But Merkley posted his visit live on Facebook — and the video caused the story to take off. The resulting public uproar prompted Trump to deny the child-separation policy that his own administration had in the works for more than a year.

Merkley described Trump's actions in a 2019 book, "America Is Better Than This: Trump's War Against Immigrant Families," and made other visits to the border with Mexico.

Merkley said that at the time of his trips, some of his Republican colleagues in the Senate told him privately they agreed with him. He said he hopes that now, with Trump out of the presidency, some of them will join publicly in true immigration-law change — even though almost all of the Republicans who voted in 2013 have left the Senate, and Republicans remain divided on the issue.

He said to reporters:

"I worked to try to get our government to stand up for those children and end child separation, to treat them with courtesy and respect the moment they came across the border. I heard a lot of Republicans who said they wanted to do that — but none of them would stand up to President Trump and actually drive through a policy that would protect those children.

"I think we have a chance to protect those children now on a bipartisan basis."

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NOTE: Adds that Merkley is on the Foreign Relations Committee. He is not on the Judiciary Committee, which normally would be assigned immigration legislation.


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