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Why Trump’s Immigration Demands Haven’t Changed the Dynamics on Hill

Prospects for a bipartisan bill were already grim

A sign at an immigration rights protest in from on the White House on Sept. 5 to oppose President Donald Trump’s decision to phase out the DACA program. (Bill Clark/Roll Call File Photo)
A sign at an immigration rights protest in from on the White House on Sept. 5 to oppose President Donald Trump’s decision to phase out the DACA program. (Bill Clark/Roll Call File Photo)

President Donald Trump’s decision to push for his border wall as part of an immigration deal — after previously saying it would be dealt with separately — would, at first glance, seem to lower the probability of a bipartisan accord.

But the prospects were already grim. So Sunday’s release of Trump’s immigration policy priorities caused no major shift in the dynamics on Capitol Hill. 

Lawmakers have roughly five months to provide a legislative replacement for the Obama-era Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, or DACA, that the Trump administration is phasing out. The program provides work permits to undocumented immigrants brought to the United States as children, sheltering roughly 800,000 from deportation.

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Democrats are continuing to fight for an up or down vote on the so-called DREAM Act, a measure that would give those childhood immigrants legal status and eventually citizenship. They believe there’s potential for a deal with Republicans who support a similar measure, sponsored by Florida GOP Rep. Carlos Curbelo.

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But Republicans are still working through intraparty differences on how to approach the issue. Some GOP lawmakers want to work across the aisle, while others feel the House should pursue a conservative approach that would include policies that Democrats have said they would reject.

Trump’s own waffling statements on immigration over the past month since his administration announced plans to unwind the DACA program reflect the divide within the GOP.

A few weeks ago, the president told Democrats — and reiterated in public comments to reporters — that the border wall would not be a part of discussions on a legislative replacement for DACA but that he would push for it to be addressed separately.

In exchange, Democratic leaders agreed to negotiate with Republicans on border security measures that excluded the wall, although that angered some in their caucus who prefer to pass a clean DREAM Act.


On Sunday, when Trump released his immigration priorities list, the border wall was at the very top. The president told congressional leaders in a letter that those proposals — which included other ideas anathema to Democrats such as ending “sanctuary city” protections and limiting family-based green cards to spouses and minor children — must be part of any legislation addressing the status of DACA recipients.

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi on Wednesday called Trump’s priorities “trash” and “unacceptable,” saying his list “has reiterated the darkness and cruelty of the administration’s immigration agenda.”

“Each one of them is horrible but the cumulative effect of them would destroy a fundamental part of the American character — a free nation proud of an immigrant heritage,” the California Democrat said.

Despite that, Pelosi said she still believes Trump supports those undocumented childhood immigrants, also known as Dreamers, something he told her and Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer over dinner last month.

“He doesn’t support Dreamers because Chuck and I had good table manners that night,” she said. “He supports Dreamers because the American people support Dreamers.”

Moving the goal posts

Lawmakers from both parties acknowledge that Trump moved the goal posts, an inside the Beltway phrase for shifting negotiating positions, with his newly released immigration principles.

“We live in a town where everybody moves the goal posts, week to week and day to day, as far as what’s part of the negotiation process,” Republican Study Committee Chairman Mark Walker said, adding that the president might have created a small problem in terms of his ability to work with Democrats.

“But we in the House, we’re getting to a place — and you’ve seen this transformation the last two or three months — we’re going to do our job regardless of where the Senate is and sometimes even the administration,” the North Carolina Republican said. “As legislators, that’s our job.”

Walker said there is bipartisan will to pass a long-term replacement for the DACA program, and Democrats agree.

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But turning the will into bipartisan legislation has proved to be challenging.

“Both sides are the reason why this hasn’t happened in 17 years,” Curbelo said. “And both sides have the responsibility to get it right this time.”

The Florida Republican acknowledged that some members of his party are pushing for ideas that are unrealistic, given that “a Republican-only package isn’t going to get through the Congress.” But Democrats are playing politics on immigration too, he said, noting that he was excluded from a press conference in support of Dreamers last week and that he’s been waiting six months for an explanation from the Congressional Hispanic Caucus as to why they won’t accept him as a member.

Rep. Tom Cole said no one should be surprised by Trump moving the goal posts, noting, “He does it all the time.” Nor should they be surprised that both parties are staking out positions the other side can’t accept, the Oklahoma Republican said.

“At the end of the day, people are going to have to decide whether or not they want to compromise,” Cole said. “The logical compromise is more border security in exchange for obviously helping kids that deserve [and] need the help.”

Which path?

House Republicans seem to be still mulling whether or not to compromise with Democrats.

Rep. John Carter, chairman of the Homeland Security Appropriations Subcommittee, said he wants the House to focus on a Republican-led solution that can get 218 votes because he wants the border wall to be part of any response and he knows Democrats will object.

“I’m for fixing the immigration crisis in the United States, and I’m not for coming up with some imaginary pluff so they can legalize 800,000 [people], who yes, they came here young but they still, under the statute of the law, they violated the law,” the Texas Republican said.

However, Carter said he supports an earned path to citizenship for young undocumented immigrants who meet certain requirements such as graduating from college and entering the workforce “as long as they get behind everybody else in line.”

Carter is a member of a Republican task force trying to find a solution to the DACA issue that a majority of the GOP conference can support, but he said he was speaking on his behalf only. The task force members “are under blood oath to not discuss what the committee is doing,” he said.  

Other Republicans prefer that the House begin with a solution that Democrats can also support, since their votes will be needed to help pass a measure through the Senate.

Pennsylvania Rep. Charlie Dent, co-chairman of the Tuesday Group, said he and a lot of the other members of his centrist GOP caucus would like to see a bipartisan immigration bill that can pass with at least 300 votes.

“If there’s a sense that there’s going to do a Republican-only bill, then the House becomes less relevant and we surrender our ability to negotiate with the Senate,” he said. “Because then the Senate is going to cut the deal, and then they’ll jam us.”

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