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Immigration debate reaches critical point

While Washington obsesses over a new book on White House intrigue, the Trump administration is reaching a critical point on the issue of immigration, one of the president's top priorities and the subject of his most often-repeated campaign promises.

There are multiple moving parts: The Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, a border wall, chain migration, the visa lottery and — hanging over it all — funding the government. But everything hinges on DACA, unilaterally imposed by Barack Obama to temporarily legalize nearly 800,000 people who were brought to the U.S. illegally when they were young.

When President Trump rescinded DACA last Sept. 5, he delayed implementation for six months to give Congress time to come up with some sort of solution for the so-called Dreamers. That means lawmakers need to act by March 5 or face a decidedly uncertain future.

Nearly everyone on Capitol Hill wants a fix that results in legalization for the Dreamers. Democrats want to legalize right away, straight up, no strings attached. But Trump and most Republicans want a deal: immigration reforms — the wall, chain migration, visa lottery — in exchange for legalization.

That's where funding the government comes in. A temporary funding resolution passed last month expires on Jan. 19. Congress can pass a "clean" bill to avoid a partial shutdown, or it can have a fight if one party tries to attach unrelated policy preferences to the must-pass spending bill.

That is the traditional Republican role, which has led Republicans to believe that they always lose shutdown fights. But it is probably more accurate to say that Republicans don't always lose shutdown fights — it is the party that tries to attach unrelated policy preferences to must-pass spending bills that loses shutdown fights. In the past, that has been Republicans. This time, it might be Democrats.

The Senate's No. 2 Democrat, Dick Durbin, appears to be itching to set off a shutdown crisis over DACA. "President Trump has said he may need a good government shutdown to get his wall," Durbin said recently. "With this demand (for wall funding), he seems to be heading in that direction."

But Trump, who in the past has threatened a government shutdown over the wall, is now proposing trading his policy preferences — the wall, etc. — in exchange for DACA legalization. "The wall is going to happen, or we're not going to have DACA," he said recently. He hasn't demanded they be passed in order to keep the government running. Durbin is suggesting Democrats demand DACA passage to keep the government in business.

It's a losing strategy. Democrats could have pursued it when government funding came up in December. But when push came to shove, they didn't. Now, will they try for real?

"If the government were to shut down because of DACA, it would elevate the question of amnesty for these illegal immigrants far beyond the status it has now," says one GOP lawmaker. That seems less likely to capture the voters' attention than a question of shutting down the government.

It's one thing to block a DACA fix because of a policy demand — in this case, the wall. But it's a much different thing to force a partial government shutdown because of a policy demand. Durbin and Democrats are likely to find that out, if they don't already know.

Assuming the government is funded, with either a long-term or kick-the-can, short-term measure, the DACA negotiations will start in earnest ahead of that March 5 deadline.

Can Trump get what he wants, or part of what he wants? At the moment, Democrats seem determined to throw their bodies in front of any plan to build a wall. The president has asked Congress to put aside $18 billion over the next 10 years for the job. That seems doomed.

But what about some other idea? What about passing a down payment — the House has already approved $1.6 billion — as part of another plan?

"One possibility would be a relatively modest down payment that Democrats could swallow," said the GOP lawmaker, "and then authorization for a user-fee model for future years. So a fee for visas or border crossings could be turned into a dedicated revenue stream for wall construction." (That would, by the way, mean that, yes, Mexico pays for the wall, or at least a significant part of it.)

The president also wants a measure to stop chain migration, and perhaps a provision to end the visa lottery, too. It seems highly unlikely he would get it all. But he might get something.

Trump will be offering permanent legalization for those nearly 800,000 Dreamers, or perhaps for an even larger group referred to as DACA-eligible. It depends on whether Democrats believe that giving Trump something in return is the only way to achieve that legalization.

It is a decisive moment in the Trump presidency, and in the debate over immigration. Right now, it's fair to say nearly no one in the Washington press corps is paying much attention — they would much rather discuss Steve Bannon, or the 25th Amendment or whether the president watches too much TV. But the coming weeks will be crucial for the agenda that won Donald Trump the White House.

Hits & Misses: Rescue on Owasco Lake; propane delivery complaints; Auburn writer earns honor

HIT: To a rescue on Owasco Lake.

When a duck hunter fell out of a kayak Sunday near Fleming, another person was able to grab a canoe and go out and help the floundering Wayne County man to shore. Emergency responders said that the man had become hypothermic but was going to be OK.

At the risk of adding insult to injury, we have to also give a MISS to the apparent unpreparedness of the hunter. Authorities said that not only was he not wearing a life jacket, he did not bring one along in his kayak. Water can be dangerous at any time of year, but going out in cold weather requires an extra level of safety preparation.

MISS: To reports that some propane suppliers took advantage of customers.

The state Attorney General's Office is investigating numerous complaints from New Yorkers who said that fuel suppliers ignored their calls for service, forced them to purchase new propane tanks, or deliberately delivered on weekends so they could charge a higher fee. The complaints were lodged during the recent bout of extremely cold weather, when people found themselves in urgent need of propane to heat their homes.

HIT: To writer from another dimension.

When Dale Elster heard about a writing contest sponsored by the Rod Serling Memorial Foundation, he quickly got down to work, writing the introduction and ending narrations for a fictional story in the theme of "The Twilight Zone."

The Auburn author is a fan of Serling's work, so he came up with a story similar to something Serling himself might have written. And the result was quite good — garnering a third-place award in the contest.

The Citizen editorial board includes publisher Rob Forcey, executive editor Jeremy Boyer and managing editor Mike Dowd.

N.Y. courts striving to serve you better

The public should expect and demand accountability from their public institutions, and that certainly includes the judiciary. And that is why our courts have so enthusiastically embraced Chief Judge Janet DiFiore’s “Excellence Initiative.”

Chief Judge DiFiore’s first action on taking office was an ongoing commitment to provide New Yorkers with the best possible service from their courts. The Chief Judge ordered a top-to-bottom examination of operations aimed at improving efficiency, eliminating delays and ensuring that our judicial system is operating on all cylinders at all times.

Critically, this was not a one-shot deal, but an ongoing evaluation and re-evaluation, and those of us who have been elected as judges are regularly confronted with reports that measure our performance. It all starts with accountability.

In the Seventh Judicial District, which is comprised of eight Finger Lakes counties, I have the honor and privilege of supervising the judges and staff. We adhere to the adage that what gets measured gets accomplished. That is why we require every chief clerk in every county to meet regularly with every judge in every court to review pending caseloads. The Chief Judge believes, as do I, that our only priority as public officials is to serve the public interest, and that we owe the citizens who allow us to hold these positions our best efforts to improve the level of justice services provided to them. That starts with effective and timely resolutions of all cases pending before us.

The Case Management Action Plan was implemented some years ago in the Seventh Judicial District to habitually examine pending caseloads, figure out which courts are falling behind in what we call “standards and goals” (aspirational time periods for how long it “should” take for certain types of cases to proceed to various points) and, of course, why. Only with this knowledge is it possible to address, and prevent, problems.

The results of our efforts in the Seventh Judicial District are nothing short of astounding and fill me with pride:

Criminal cases in the Seventh Judicial District over standards and goals (“S & G”) are down 87 percent. In 2016, there were 21 criminal cases that were a year or more over S & G. Today, there are none.

Civil cases over S & G are down 57 percent.

Family Court cases over S & G are down 32 percent.

City Court cases over S & G are down 54 percent.

Perhaps as important in our efforts to continuously strive to better serve the public, our extraordinary court employees have embraced new initiatives, which include, by way of example, the following:

The creation of an “Administrative Judge’s Task Force” at which select staff from each of our counties gather on a regular basis to implement unique initiatives (a/k/a “thinking outside of the box”) to better serve the public.

A jury service outreach campaign to help assure that our jury pools reflect the diversity of our communities.

Implementation of an efficient e-filing program for supreme court civil cases for all counties by the end of 2018.

An active student ambassador-internship program, community outreach and court tour programs.

It would be disingenuous of me to take the credit for these accomplishments. The truth of the matter is that the judges and non-judicial personnel in our eight counties — Cayuga, Livingston, Monroe, Ontario, Seneca, Steuben, Yates and Wayne — deserve the credit, and make the Seventh Judicial District look as good as it is.