Border Wall Funds Elusive Without a Deal on ‘Dreamers’

Stalemate could affect negotiations over fiscal 2018 spending bill

Aurelia Lopez and her daughter Antonia overlook construction of border wall prototypes on October 5, 2017, in Tijuana, Mexico. Prototypes of the border wall proposed by President Donald Trump have been built just north of the U.S.-Mexico border. (Sandy Huffaker/Getty Images file photo)
Aurelia Lopez and her daughter Antonia overlook construction of border wall prototypes on October 5, 2017, in Tijuana, Mexico. Prototypes of the border wall proposed by President Donald Trump have been built just north of the U.S.-Mexico border. (Sandy Huffaker/Getty Images file photo)
Posted March 2, 2018 at 5:04am

President Donald Trump may be headed for a Groundhog Day experience as his search for funding to build a U.S.-Mexico border wall enters its second year.

Trump is asking Congress for $1.6 billion in fiscal 2019 to construct 65 miles of new barriers in southern Texas, even though he is still without the $1.6 billion he requested for 2018. The White House also wants $18 billion over the next decade for construction.

“Don’t worry, you’re getting the wall,” Trump told the audience at the annual Conservative Political Action Conference last week.

But Democrats — who can block any spending legislation from passing the Senate — are largely opposed to funding the border wall without a path to citizenship for undocumented “Dreamers,” including nearly 700,000 enrolled in the expiring Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program. That means Trump could end up with nothing.

“Without any kind of … comprehensive immigration reform, I would not support a wall,” California Rep. Judy Chu said.

The stalemate over border wall funding has the potential to not only gum up fiscal 2019 spending, but also negotiations over a final spending bill for the fiscal year that began Oct. 1. Current government funding expires on March 23.

Watch: Trump’s Impulsiveness Could Get in Way of Border Wall Promise

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Trump may have already squandered his best chance when he torched a bipartisan Senate compromise that would have authorized and appropriated $25 billion for border security. In exchange, the plan would have offered a path to citizenship for 1.9 million Dreamers, according to an analysis by the nonpartisan Migration Policy Institute. All but three Senate Democrats supported it, but it fell six votes short of advancing with scant Republican support.

Some lawmakers believe a similar deal could still happen if Trump backs off demands that any deal also cut legal immigration and end the Diversity Visa lottery program.

“There remains a window, if the president were [to] back off his aggressive rhetoric and intense lobbying, to craft a deal that provided border security for a path to citizenship for Dreamers,” said Sen. Chris Coons, a Delaware Democrat.

But if Trump continues to throw cold water on anything less than what he’s demanding, “I’m not optimistic we’ll get something done,” Coons said.

Plan B

With substantive bipartisan negotiations on immigration all but ended, senators are turning their attention to a possible fallback plan: attaching a short-term codification of the DACA program and a commensurate level of border security funding to the upcoming fiscal 2018 omnibus spending bill, which lawmakers could vote on in the coming weeks.

Arizona Republican Jeff Flake and North Dakota Democrat Heidi Heitkamp announced on Tuesday a bill that would provide $7.6 billion for border security and grant Dreamers three additional years of protected status.

“We need to get some kind of temporary stopgap as we pursue overall solutions to this problem,” Heitkamp said.

Heitkamp is one of 10 Senate Democrats up for re-election this year in states Trump carried in 2016 who will face pressure to back Trump’s border security agenda regardless of what happens to the Dreamers. Republicans would need nine Democratic votes to pass the omnibus.

Heitkamp appears to be on board, saying she’s committed to border security and approves of the administration’s immediate plan. Others are noncommittal. Missouri Sen. Claire McCaskill, the ranking member of the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, said she’s “waiting to see where we are and where it’s going to be built.”

“It’s going to depend on the details,” she said.

The Homeland Security Department began testing eight border wall prototypes — four made of concrete and four made of alternate materials — in November, a process that was supposed to take between 30 to 60 days. But officials say testing is ongoing.

“This project continues in the test and evaluation phase,” said Customs and Border Protection spokesman Carlos Diaz. “This process will allow CBP to create a toolkit of characteristics for future wall designs. In other words, a number of successful characteristics will be selected for future wall designs.”

Diaz said that he does not expect there to be a public announcement on DHS’ prototype selection since the information will likely be “law enforcement sensitive.”

Wall prototypes

It’s unclear what purpose the prototypes will serve if the White House doesn’t get funding to begin construction. Ronald D. Vitiello, the CBP’s acting deputy commissioner, said in October that officials may choose to leave the structures in place or get rid of them after evaluation.

Trump was jubilant on Tuesday after U.S. District Judge Gonzalo Curiel — whom the president once accused of bias because of the American-born judge’s Mexican heritage — ruled that DHS could waive certain environmental protection laws in order to construct the wall.

Still, Trump’s proclamation on Twitter that “now this important project can go forward,” appeared premature given the congressional logjam over how to fund it.

The president is expected to visit the prototypes during a trip to California next month, a White House official said Tuesday.

John T. Bennett contributed to this report.