CAPITOL HILL - Time is short for 800,000 people who moved to the U.S. as children without documentation but have held temporary legal status under an Obama-era policy initiated in 2012.
President Donald Trump has given the U.S. Congress six months to do what it has been unable to do for 16 years — agree on a formula granting them permanent status — before he begins phasing out the program entirely. But with just a handful of days left in September, lawmakers in the majority Republican party are saying that debate will have to wait, while they focus on funding the government and sending aid to victims of Hurricane Harvey.
WATCH: Lawmakers Consider Options for Dreamers
When they do focus on resolving the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, Republicans in the House of Representatives will have to decide whether to address the program as its own piece of legislation or as part of a larger and more politically contentious effort to pass comprehensive immigration reform or fund strengthened border security.
"I think it's totally reasonable and appropriate that when you take a look at the DACA dilemma, this is a dilemma that in large part stems from the fact that it is a symptom of a larger problem. And the larger problem is that we do not have control of our borders," House Speaker Paul Ryan said Wednesday.
He said it was "reasonable and fitting" that lawmakers "address the root cause of the problem, which is borders that are not sufficiently controlled, while we address this very real and very human problem that's right in front of us."
Weighing legislative options
On their first day back after a five-week recess, Republicans said Wednesday that taking more time to come up with a solution for DACA could result in a broader discussion about immigration and border security.
"There is a move afoot to attach DACA, to do some DACA and border security funding together," Representative Charlie Dent, a Pennsylvania Republican, told VOA. "Something like the Carlos Curbelo bill with some border security funding — that's the discussion, that's the obvious compromise."
That bill, from Florida Republican Representative Carlos Curbelo, is one of several pieces of legislation introduced in the Senate and House that would provide a fix for DACA recipients' status.
The bills vary in the number of years of protected status provided to DACA recipients, and some are coupled with controls on immigration levels. But all would permanently fix the status problem for those affected.
One such option is the BRIDGE Act, which stands for Bar Removal of Individuals who Dream and Grow our Economy. One sponsor, Republican Representative Mike Coffman, of Colorado, had said he would use a rare legislative move to force a vote on the legislation in the House, but he told VOA that effort was now on hold while Republican leadership pursued a solution.
"I think they get that they have a six-month window to get it done," Coffman said. "I think the question is that they clearly want the majority of Republicans to support it. My view is that I want them to be successful. If they're not successful and Democrats hold firm, I can get enough Republicans to put it over the top."
Deadline increases pressure
Over the years both Republican- and Democratic-led Congresses have failed to secure a legislative fix for the issue. Trump's six-month deadline raises the stakes of the debate, injecting more uncertainty into the process. Many lawmakers are nervous about the optics of making political deals while the fate of young people is on the line.
"I hate to talk deals when we're talking about 800,000 young people's lives and we're going to wheel and deal and trade saving them for a wall or anything like that," Representative Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, a Florida Republican, told VOA. "It's unfortunately how politics works. It's an ugly process and I hope we do the right thing for DACA kids."
And for the more conservative members of the House Republican conference, a deal on DACA could be a tough sell to their constituents who oppose solutions that forgive people, even those who were children, for breaking immigration laws.
"If this DACA thing comes forward through committee and onto the floor for debate, you're going to see a divided Republican conference, with a significant majority saying we need to restore the respect for the rule of law, not demonstrate a disrespect or even contempt for the rule of law by rewarding lawbreakers," said Representative Steve King, an Iowa Republican.
"So why is this discussion taking place? Because he (Trump) didn't want to make the decision boldly and distinctly, and instead it's a King Solomon decision: Cut the baby in half and throw both halves to Congress," he said.
Push for earlier solution
Senate and House Democrats warned Wednesday that if Republican leadership did not address the issue in September, they would attach DACA legislation to unrelated bills to force the issue.
If a DACA measure "does not come to the floor in September, we are prepared to attach it to other items this fall until it passes," said Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer of New York.
But for now, it appears the Republican lawmakers who control both houses of Congress are hoping a solution can be found.
"We have six months — that's the beauty of what Trump did," said Representative Chris Collins, a New York Republican. "We have too much to do this month, for sure — we've got to get tax reform done this year — so we have until next February or March."
Collins said that while he hoped the DACA discussion could lead to comprehensive immigration reform, the resolution would likely be a straightforward decision for most lawmakers.
"I don't know why everyone wouldn't support it. These kids didn't break the law," Collins said.