The Trump administration is either going to save DACA negotiations or torpedo them. Again.
The Trump White House just made a big promise: On Monday, on the eve of President Trump’s first State of the Union address (and less than two weeks before the next deadline to pass a government funding bill), the administration will release an outline for a “bipartisan” immigration bill for the Senate to take up.
In a statement, the White House said that the framework it will unveil “represents a compromise that members of both parties can support” and “will fulfill four agreed-upon pillars: securing the border and closing legal loopholes, ending extended-family chain migration, cancelling the visa lottery, and providing a permanent solution on DACA” — Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, the Obama-era program that shielded nearly 700,000 undocumented immigrants from deportation, which Trump has ended.
Such a framework is exactly what members of both parties in Congress — especially Republicans — have been asking for. As Sen. John Kennedy (R-LA) said on Tuesday: “At some point, we’re going to need to know exactly what the White House is thinking, because who wants to pass a bill only to have it vetoed?”
With little room to maneuver on policy (for a bill to pass, it will have to be liberal enough to attract 60 votes in the Senate and conservative enough to satisfy a majority of House Republicans) and very little time to debate the issue, a Trump-endorsed framework could be a game changer.
Or it could put a stake through the heart of any hopes for an immigration deal by March 5, the date on which, as it currently stands, 1,100 or so immigrants will start losing their DACA protections each day.
Which path it takes is as unpredictable as President Trump himself.
Congress keeps asking for Trump’s demands and keeps not getting good answers
The White House put itself in this position to begin with by deciding, in September, to end the DACA program — preventing 690,000 young unauthorized immigrants from renewing the temporary work permits and deportation protections some of them had had since 2012.
Ever since September 5, when Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced that the Trump administration would end the DACA program and Trump called on Congress to address the status of DACA recipients in the next six months, members of Congress trying to work on the issue have asked the White House to tell them what kind of immigration bill Trump would be able to sign.
The White House has answered this question publicly on at least three occasions. And none of them have helped.
In October — and again earlier this month — the answer to “What do you need?” was a seven-page wish list: restrictions on legal immigration, a sweeping crackdown on unauthorized immigrants in the United States, and an overhaul of border policy (in the more recent memo, an attachment spelled out that the White House wanted $19 billion over 10 years to build a wall on the US-Mexico border). The wish list did not, however, include anything about DACA recipients — and the White House wasn’t willing to commit to supporting a bill that would allow current DACA recipients to eventually become US citizens, even if its other demands were met.
Neither of these wish lists was helpful for Republicans actually trying to come to an agreement with Democrats. Both were more or less ignored.
On January 9, in an Oval Office meeting with a bipartisan group of lawmakers, the Trump administration tried again. At first, staffers passed out a four-page list of demands compiled by the Department of Homeland Security. But Trump, reportedly upset that the list didn’t match his personal demands and that he hadn’t seen it in advance, instructed congressional leaders to ignore it. Instead, the White House issued a statement afterward saying that they’d agreed to focus the immigration debate on four issues — the same four “agreed-upon pillars” the White House now says it will take the lead in addressing.
The room for a “bipartisan” agreement on the issues Trump has picked is very small
Those four issues are clearly Trump’s own priorities. They’re the ones he’s been tweeting about for weeks. But it’s been very hard to get agreement on them between bipartisan reformers and conservatives, with the White House (and, sometimes, Trump himself) squarely in the latter camp.
Border security and “closing legal loopholes.” Democrats have been willing to spend money on border infrastructure as part of a DACA deal, though neither Democrats nor Republicans are eager to spend tens of billions of dollars on a “wall.” (Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer offered Trump $20 billion in authorization for a wall in exchange for citizenship for those protected under DACA, known as DREAMers; Trump and Chief of Staff John Kelly rejected the trade on Friday, and Schumer formally, if redundantly, rescinded the offer on Tuesday.) But the question on border security isn’t just how much money is spent, and whether what’s built with that money is something that can be called a “wall” or not.
Trump’s Department of Homeland Security, as well as influential Republicans like Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn (R-TX), have stressed that border security also needs to include statutory changes that would make it harder for people to pursue asylum cases after entering the US and reduce special protections for families and unaccompanied children crossing the border. Because children and families from Central America make up an increasing share of border apprehensions, they see deterring those immigrants as an important security measure. Democrats, however, see it as cruel: a crackdown on people fleeing gang violence that doesn’t make anyone safer.
“Ending extended-family chain migration.” The White House, led by Trump, has demanded limits on family-based immigration — which accounts for the majority of legal immigration to the US — as part of a DACA deal. In particular, they seem concerned with the F3 and F4 categories of family visas, which allow adult children and siblings of US citizens to come to the US; because those visa holders can bring their spouses, who can then bring their own families, this creates “chains.”
Democrats see family reunification as an important part of the immigration system — and haven’t, thus far, been willing to entertain an overhaul of legal immigration as part of a deal to legalize only a fraction of unauthorized immigrants. The F3 and F4 visa categories account for 88,400 visas a year (even though the demand for them is far greater), and Democrats — as well as many Republicans — would rather see those visas reallocated than eliminated entirely, while immigration hawks see eliminating “chain migration” as a way to reduce overall legal immigration.
Ending the diversity visa lottery. Few in Congress are interested in retaining the “lottery” system by which 50,000 potential immigrants from countries that don’t send many people to the US are invited to apply for admission. But many Democrats (including the Congressional Black Caucus) want to retain the “diversity” part of the diversity visa, which has been a key way for African immigrants to enter the country — a provision that Trump objected to in his instantly infamous rant about “shithole countries.” Again, immigration hawks appear more interested in eliminating those visas entirely than in reallocating them — something that Democrats (and a few Republicans) aren’t going to support
A “permanent solution” for DACA recipients. The debate over enforcement trade-offs has obscured the fact that Democrats and Republicans don’t actually agree on what a “DACA fix” — the part they both claim to support — should look like. The conservative proposal advanced by Rep. Bob Goodlatte (R-VA) would allow only the 690,000 current DACA recipients to apply for legal status (which they’d have to meet strict guidelines to maintain), and that legal status would not lead to a green card — meaning they couldn’t become citizens unless they qualified by other means.
Bipartisan bills, however, would encompass most DREAMers, allowing as many as 2 million people — including those young undocumented immigrants who never applied for DACA, as well as those who were too old (over 31 as of 2012) or too young (15 and under) to apply for the program — to ultimately get green cards and citizenship.
Trump himself said Wednesday night that he thought immigrants legalized under the bill should be able to get citizenship in “10 or 12 years” — the same time frame as the bipartisan proposals. But an administration official almost immediately walked it back, saying Trump had offered only a “discussion point.”
Will the White House become a reliable negotiating partner?
The White House’s insistence on these four pillars is a little weird at this point. Not only did they reject the only proposal that was designed to meet them (the one presented by Sens. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) and Dick Durbin (D-IL)), but they called that plan so liberal that it couldn’t even serve as a starting point for negotiations. Meanwhile, Goodlatte’s bill, which several White House figures have held up as a model, also includes several enforcement provisions that go way beyond these policy areas; if anything, Goodlatte’s bill overhauls immigration enforcement in the interior of the US even more than border security.
Congress ultimately doesn’t really need the White House to issue a policy proposal. It needs an assurance that Trump is going to pick some things that he needs out of an immigration deal, stick to them, and encourage members of Congress to get on board.
Many Senate Republicans aren’t interested in sticking their necks out for a bill that might not pass the House; many House Republicans aren’t interested in making themselves vulnerable to primary challenges by voting to offer any protections to any unauthorized immigrants. The president needs to rally his party. It’s not something he’s been able to do so far — he hasn’t even been able to make up his mind about whether he wants to make a deal on immigration even if it involves a compromise, or if he wants a radical overhaul of American immigration policy and will settle for nothing less.
Getting the president to say what he wants is the easy part; getting him to commit to it, and to try to get other people to commit to it, is much harder.