WASHINGTON – President Donald Trump on Thursday called on Congress to deliver a bipartisan deal protecting younger undocumented immigrants from deportation, but he maintained his demand for a border wall and cuts to legal immigration that Democrats have opposed.
“I think it can be bipartisan,” Trump said at the White House ahead of a meeting with Republican senators on immigration. “I hope it can be bipartisan. It can take care of a lot of problems; it would be really nice to do it in a bipartisan way.”
Lawmakers are facing a March 5 deadline to pass legislation to help “dreamers,” immigrants brought to the country illegally as children, after Trump announced in September he would terminate an Obama-era program called Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) that has provided two-year work permits to hundreds of thousands of them. Nearly 700,000 DACA recipients are enrolled in the program; after March 5, nearly 1,000 per day will lose their work permits unless Congress acts.
White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said Trump would play host to a bipartisan group of Congress members next week to continue the negotiations. That gathering comes as a Jan. 19 deadline looms to enact a new spending bill to keep the government open. Democrats are pushing to complete a deal on DACA by then and add it to the spending legislation – an effort that, if it fails, could force a government shutdown.
“This must be done now,” Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., said Thursday. He told reporters later that Democrats are continuing to push for “an agreement to enshrine DACA protections alongside additional border security” in the next spending agreement.
Republicans are resisting attempts to tie the two issues together.
“Our deadline is not two weeks from now. Our deadline wasn’t Christmas. Our deadline is by the first week of March,” said Sen. James Lankford, R-Okla., who attended the meeting with Trump on Friday.
While Lankford and others would prefer to take a slower approach, other Republicans including Sen. Jeff Flake, Ariz., as well as dozens of moderate Republicans in the House insisted that the issue must be resolved quickly.
To earn his support for the GOP’s tax reform plan, Flake said he was assured by Trump and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., that a bill addressing the fate of DACA recipients would be given an up-or-down vote this month.
“The promise we have is for a bill on the floor by the end of January,” Flake told reporters. He called ongoing meetings among Republicans “counterproductive” because any resolution to the issue “has to be a bipartisan bill.”
Trump said that Democratic support on a DACA fix “would be terrific.” But he emphasized that “any legislation on DACA must secure our border with a wall. It must give our immigration officers the resources they need to stop illegal immigration.”
He also reiterated previous calls to end a diversity visa lottery that provides 50,000 green cards a year to immigrants from countries with low immigration rates to the United States. “The lottery system has to be laughed at by people outside our country,” Trump said.
After the meeting at the White House, Lankford and Sen. Thom Tillis, R-N.C., said in a joint statement that the lawmakers and Trump are “on the same page” when it comes to striking a deal that would bolster border security and resolve the years-long fight over how to protect young immigrants from deportation.
Immigrant rights groups, including those representing DACA recipients, have called for a “clean” DACA bill that is not attached to the spending bill and does not contain other border security provisions.
Congressional Democrats have signaled they are open to some security measures, but they have steadfastly refused to support Trump’s border wall, saying such a barrier is costly and unnecessary at a time when illegal crossings at the Mexican border are at records lows. Some moderate Republicans are also wary of supporting a wall.
In comments to reporters, Lankford, Tillis and Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, who all attended the meeting, tried to redefine Trump’s campaign commitment to build a border wall along the roughly 2,100-mile stretch between the United States and Mexico.
“People want to paint his definition – people want to paint that it’s some 2,000-mile long, 30-foot high wall of concrete. That’s not what he means and that’s not what he’s tried to say but I think that’s what people are portraying it as,” Lankford told reporters. “The issue has always been there’s going to be border fencing in some areas, there’s going to be vehicular barricades, there’s going to be technology, there’s going to be greater manpower in some areas.”
Cornyn and Tillis said they expect any agreement to include language authorizing a years-long project to fortify the border with funding for the new security measures to be doled out in future appropriations bills.
Ultimately, the plan would result in “probably a net increase of 600 miles of wall,” Tillis said. “That will be varying barriers based on where you are along the border, but that’s the long-term view.”
Left unclear Thursday is how the GOP-controlled House might respond to an emerging bipartisan immigration deal crafted by senators. A bipartisan immigration reform plan passed the Senate in 2013 only to be shelved by the more conservative House amid growing political pressure to reject the idea.
Rep. Will Hurd, R-Texas, who is helping negotiate a potential immigration agreement in the House, warned Thursday in an interview with CBSN that any agreement coupling a solution to the fate of dreamers with changes in border security “needs to be narrow, because when you start adding on this other stuff, you start building coalitions of opposition.”
“We need to solve this problem quickly and if we solve it this month, that’d be great,” Hurd said.