WASHINGTON — Republican Sens. Lindsey Graham and Jeff Flake are pushing the incoming Trump administration and their colleagues to protect young immigrants who were granted temporary protection against deportation — an uphill battle, given the president-elect's hardline immigration views during the campaign.
Graham and Flake plan to propose legislation next year that will extend the protections for young immigrants, or "DREAMers," that were granted through executive order by President Obama. President-elect Donald Trump ran on the promise of repealing that executive order, leaving more than 700,000 of those immigrants, who came to the U.S. at a young age illegally, in uncertainty.
"What I'm trying to do is — I agree with the idea that the executive order is not the right way to do this," Graham told reporters Thursday afternoon. "Cancel it, but we have the reality of these kids. There would be chaos. Their lives would be ruined. This is a way to cancel the executive order and not ruin these kids lives so we can figure a way to fix the whole problem. Most Americans would think that's fair."
"I don't think most Americans want to do that to these kids. Now what will be required is if you've committed a felony — or you're a lawbreaker — you're not going to be allowed to stay. You're going to be allowed to stay under my bill if they continue to exhibit good behavior until we can finally give us a reasonable amount of time to work through this," he added.
Asked how many Republicans in the Senate would be willing to support such a proposal, Graham said "a lot" if the Trump administration gave it a thumbs up.
"I think if President Trump says, 'This is a good solution to a hard problem.' Here's what you've got to ask Republicans and Democrats: What do you do with these kids?," he said. "Now, I'm not going to be part of a Republican Party that will take 700,000-plus young people who've done nothing on their own — they came here as small kids, they lived their life in America, they have no place else to go — and just ruin their lives."
Flake and Graham were both part of the Gang of Eight — the group of senators that pushed comprehensive immigration reform through the Senate in 2013. Other Republican senators in that group have not yet signaled support for the legislation. One of them, Arizona Sen. John McCain, a close friend of Graham's, said the issue needed to be handled in a renewed comprehensive immigration reform effort.
"He's right about that," Graham responded when asked about McCain's position. "But if you repeal the executive order, then you've got an instant problem."
Other moderate Republicans like Maine Sen. Susan Collins told reporters she would have to review the proposal before taking a position on it.
Flake declined to give any names of Republicans they had approached about supporting their proposal, but he said the details were still being worked and that it had to be done in the next Congress and not under Obama.
"We're just trying to protect those kids," he said. "We've got to do it legislatively. All of us argued that the president had gone beyond his authority..so it's a temporary thing and we're having to deal with it now."