Senators working on DACA fix blame White House staff for undermining immigration talks
The fallout from last Thursday's White House meeting on immigration reform cast a dark shadow over bipartisan attempts to address the fate of more than 700,000 "dreamers," immigrants brought to the country illegally as children. As of March 5, those individuals who were shielded from deportation under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrival Act face an uncertain fate if Congress fails to find a solution.
This week, the bipartisan "gang of six" members of the Senate are pushing to include a DACA resolution in a must-pass government spending bill, that will be voted on this week. However, President Donald Trump's reported use of profanity, referring to "s***hole countries" during a Thursday Oval Office meeting with lawmakers and his subsequent tweets disparaging a DACA deal, have raised new questions about whether a bipartisan fix for DACA recipients can be found in time and whether it will be acceptable for Republicans, Democrats and the White House.
Over the weekend, Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., and Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., reportedly worked out a compromise bill that will be made public on Wednesday. The hope, according to Sen. Durbin, is that the bill will be acceptable to both sides and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell will include it in the government spending bill that the Senate must vote on by Friday.
"We think we have a bill that is well-balanced and supported by Democrats and Republicans," Durbin said of the bill he crafted with Sen. Graham. "It addresses not just the critical issue of the future of DACA but also addresses the issues of border security, family unification and the future of the diversity visa."
Those issues are what Department of Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen referred to on Tuesday as the "four pillars" of immigration policy that the administration believes "are the minimum we need to secure our country."
Even as Democrats and Republicans appear to be moving closer to an agreement, both Graham and Durbin expressed concern that members of the White House staff are working to undermine the immigration negotiations, specifically Trump's senior policy adviser Stephen Miller. The two senators were also the first to confirm Trump's use of the phrase "s***hole countries" during talks last week.
During an oversight hearing on Tuesday with DHS Secretary Nielsen, Graham noted there were "two Trumps": the Trump who presided over an open, productive White House immigration meeting last Tuesday, and the Trump on Thursday, who reportedly used profanity to describe an entire continent and moved to a hardline position.
"Tuesday we had a president I was proud to golf with and call my friend, who understood immigration had to be bipartisan and we had to have border security, essentially with a wall but also understood the idea that we had to do it with compassion," Graham said. "I don't know where that guy went, but I want him back."
Previously, Trump agreed to a two-phase approach to immigration reform, first dealing with DACA and elements of border security, and later addressing his more controversial demands, like ending the diversity visa, ending chain migration, and securing full funding for the border wall. Those issues and "comprehensive immigration reform" to address the status of approximately 11 million immigrants currently in the country illegally, would be taken up in phase two.
Graham said he wanted to understand why the president's views had evolved between Tuesday and Thursday, to his current position that the diversity visa, the border wall and ending chain migration had to be included in any DACA deal.
Following the hearing, Graham suggested to reporters that the White House staff was to blame for the president's hardline views expressed in the Thursday meeting and after on social media. Specifically he pointed to Stephen Miller's influence on the president.
Durbin agreed with the sentiment that Trump had been "poisoned" by members of White House staff, Miller in particular.
"Any effort to kill immigration reform usually has Mr. Miller's fingerprints on it," Durbin told reporters.
The White House disputed the senators' characterization. Press secretary Sarah Sanders insisted that "the president is running the show," not Steve Miller.
Sanders continued that Trump realized the initial round of talks on Tuesday produced a result that "was simply a complete failure in terms of a good deal based on what the president had laid out and based on what he needed to see in a piece of legislation."
Specifically, she said the president took issue with the inadequate funding Congress provided to DHS, which amounted to only one-tenth of the agency's 2018 budget request.
According to Sen. Durbin, the new compromise bill addresses those problems. It will fully meet the department's 2018 funding request for border security, he said. The bill will reportedly provide $1.6 billion for walls, barriers and fences and an additional $1 billion for technology.
That money, which has already been approved in the House, is essentially a down payment on Trump's long-promised border wall and would be used to upgrade existing fencing and build new barriers along 722 miles of the southern border.
Four other senators, Republicans Jeff Flake of Arizona Cory Gardner of Colorado and Democrats Michael Bennet of Colorado and Robert Menendez of New Jersey, are part of the so-called gang of six working on the final details of the bill.
Over the weekend, Trump took to social media to express his tougher position on an immigration deal and chastize Democrats, whose support is needed to fix DACA.
"DACA is probably dead," Trump tweeted, "because the Democrats don’t really want it, they just want to talk and take desperately needed money away from our Military."
On Tuesday, Trump followed up insisting on "a great WALL" on the southern border, a non-starter for Democrats.
It is not clear at this point whether the president will return to the more open position on immigration reform he expressed last Tuesday, when he told lawmakers that if Congress agreed to a compromise deal on immigration, he would sign the bill even if it was not perfect. "If they come to me with things I'm not in love with, I'm going to do it," he said. "because I respect them."
Even if the Senate holds a test-vote on the Graham-Durbin immigration bill this week and finds support for the bipartisan compromise, the House of Representatives is less inclined to agree to a watered-down version of the president's tough immigration policies.
House Homeland Security Chairman Mike McCaul, R-Calif. and head of the Judiciary Committee Bob Goodlatte, R-Va., introduced a bill that has yet to earn any support from Democrats.
The Securing America's Future Act would end the diversity visa program, end chain migration for anyone other than spouses and minor children, cut legal immigration levels by 25 percent and move towards merit-based immigration system. The bill also calls for the construction of Trump's border wall along with additional technology, and an additional 10,000 Border Patrol Agents and Customs and Border Patrol officers.
Somewhere in the middle, there will have to be a compromise.
Following a meeting with members of the Senate, White House legislative director Marc Short expressed optimism that a deal to address the legal status of DACA recipients could be reached, but he said that getting it done by the end of the week would be a "herculean" task.