WASHINGTON – Leaders of some of Minnesota's biggest businesses and trade groups are pushing hard for a congressional deal that keeps undocumented immigrants brought to the United States as children from being deported.
That deal would affect an estimated 7,000 state residents and potentially more than 1 million more across the nation.
Their fate is shaping up as a linchpin to passing a federal spending bill and providing a gateway to other federal immigration reforms that many in Minnesota's business community say are vital to the future of the state's workforce.
President Donald Trump rescinded the Deferred Action on Childhood Arrivals or DACA in September, saying the program created by President Barack Obama in 2012 was an improper use of executive power and that Congress should decide the fate of immigrant children brought to the country in violation of the law. Without new legislation, DACA recipients lose their protected status as work permits and student deferments expire.
The first DACA recipients face deportation proceedings beginning March 5. But despite polls showing huge majorities of Americans support the program, legislation to replace DACA remains uncertain and consumed in partisan politics. At this point, a failure by Congress to reach an agreement on protecting so-called DACA Dreamers could lead to a government shutdown or foreclose discussion of other immigration reforms.
"It's silly that this became tangled up in a government shutdown," said Charlie Weaver, who heads the Minnesota Business Partnership, a group of the state's most powerful CEOs. But Weaver and other business leaders understand that stopping the potential deportation of DACA recipients may be the only way to keep immigration reform moving in Congress.
"If you can take baby steps," Weaver said, "it makes it easier to take bigger steps. DACA, immigration reform and trade are all related."
Target CEO Brian Cornell and Best Buy CEO Hubert Joly were among more than 100 executives who wrote Senate and House leaders in January calling on them to reach a DACA solution. The list included heads of such corporate powerhouses as IBM, Google, General Motors and Apple.
"While delay or inaction will cause significant impact to business," the business leaders wrote, "hundreds of thousands of deserving young people across the country are counting on you to work in a bipartisan way to pass permanent legislative protection."
Groups as diverse as the Chamber of Commerce and the AFL-CIO want a deal.
The group Minnesota for Immigration Reduction, which said on its website its goal is to end "amnesties for illegal aliens" and to cut legal immigration from 1 million to 200,000 per year, did not respond to a request for comment.
The group cites legal immigration figures from 1924-1965 when, it says, the U.S. only let in an average of 178,000 legal immigrants per year. It calls its goals "common sense."
Trump's State of the Union Speech last week offered a four-tier approach to immigration reform.
The first involved a 10-to-12-year path to citizenship for 1.8 million immigrants including current DACA recipients and those who have yet to enroll. The second immigration tier required funding for a wall along the Mexican border to keep out illegal immigrants.
The third ended a lottery for legal immigration from underrepresented foreign countries because Trump said it was not "merit-based."
And the fourth restricted current legal immigrants in the U.S. from sponsoring anyone other than spouses and minor children to join them. The president said the current system lets legal immigrants bring in too many relatives.
While it was not clear if the president expected his four-tier program to move as an all-or-none package, Minnesota Chamber Vice President Bill Blazar said a failure to fix DACA would be "an act of economic stupidity."
Like Weaver and the Minnesota Business Partnership, Blazar and the Minnesota Chamber represent businesses that believe DACA recipients are productive and responsible members of American society.
"There is little question among employers that these are solid citizens and great employees," Blazar noted.
Forced removal of Dreamers would hurt Minnesota more than it helps, Blazar said, and would be especially destructive if it blew up efforts to reform the larger immigration system.
Because of baby boomer retirements and low birthrates, the state is already losing workers.
"We're projected to have a shortage of 60,000 workers by 2020," Weaver said. "We can't meet the needs of businesses large and small. You can't make America great again without immigrants."
Yet as the clock ticks down on a temporary spending bill that expires Feb. 8, DACA negotiations in the Senate and House appear stuck.
Republican Rep. Erik Paulsen of Minnesota has said he supports legislation to protect DACA recipients.
Fellow Republican Rep. Jason Lewis thinks there can be a DACA "compromise" by March. Rep. Tom Emmer, the delegation's third GOP member, has said he welcomes discussion of such a law. None was available for comment on whether they believe that fix must be tied to new legal immigration restrictions.
Sen. Tina Smith told the Star Tribune that DACA needs to be addressed immediately as a "core moral issue."
The crisis, the Minnesota Democrat said, "was, frankly, created by the president who made a decision in September to undo these DACA protections."
Smith said Minnesota business leaders she talks to, "whether they run one of the Fortune 500 companies we have or whether they're running a small business, are all grappling with the same limitation to their economic growth, which is finding people to do the jobs they create."
Democratic Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota is working with a bipartisan coalition to try to negotiate a DACA solution.
"Many businesses across our state — from Target to Best Buy to General Mills — agree that we should give Dreamers a path to citizenship and allow them to stay in our country," Klobuchar said in a statement. "These are young people who came here through no fault of their own at the average age of 6 years old and 97 percent are working or in school — this is their home ... There is bipartisan consensus and we need to get this done."
But marrying DACA protections to new restrictions on legal immigration could lead to a standoff between those who want fewer immigrants and those who feel immigrants are vital to the nation's economic future, said Katherine Fennelly, University of Minnesota professor emeritus.
For those who need immigrant workers, "it is kind of a Sophie's choice," Kennelly said, referring to the novel of the same name in which a mother must choose which of her two children will be killed.
In 2016, Fennelly analyzed the economic impact on Minnesota of DACA and a similar program to protect parents of DACA recipients.
"Contrary to what some might expect," she reported, "the unauthorized population in the state is neither recent nor particularly impoverished."