The fact that President Trump allegedly referred to certain nations as “shithole countries” last week did not come up once during Wednesday morning’s meeting between White House Chief of Staff John Kelly and more than a dozen members of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus.
“I’m sure some people expected sparks to go off, but we just left that alone, because we didn’t see that as moving the agenda of the DREAMers forward,” Rep. Luis Gutierrez (D-IL) said when he emerged from the meeting.
But the reported slur hung over the meeting like a cloud, and the Latino members were additionally frustrated that Kelly gave them no clear indication of what the White House is willing to support on an immigration deal, and did not himself know the details of the bipartisan plans put forward in the House and the Senate. Other members present said while no s-bombs were dropped, Kelly used other terms they found offensive to refer to certain immigrants and immigration mechanisms.
With a potential government shutdown just a few days away, and many Democrats vowing to vote against any spending bill that doesn’t include relief for DACA recipients stripped of protections by the Trump administration, the lawmakers said Wednesday’s meeting was an opportunity for Democrats to “stand tall” and make sure the administration is not only listening to anti-immigrant hardliners.
“As you know, the President changes his mind quite often,” said Rep. Judy Chu (D-CA). “So what we want to do is make sure that the last person he hears is somebody who has heard from us.”
In a sign of the new low bar set for policy talks in Washington, several members of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus insisted to TPM that their meeting with Kelly never became heated or devolved into profanity. But neither did it give them a clear path forward on eleventh-hour negotiations around the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program.
“The problem is not the ability to have a cordial conversation, the problem is having a substantive conversation where we learn what the administration wants in return for saving the DREAMers,” Sen. Bob Menendez (D-NJ) complained in Spanish as he exited the meaning. “I didn’t get a sense that the administration has a clear bottom line.”
Menendez added that, while unclear, the White House’s demands seemed to be “way beyond” what is realistic.
“What they want in return [for DACA] is a continuously moving target, and it continuously expands,” he said, in English. “Interior enforcement, more border patrol, a wall, asylum reform—these are the type of things we talked about for a comprehensive immigration package that covered broader 11 million undocumented people. The administration continues to seem to want everything Democrats were willing to give in the process of considering comprehensive reform just for these 700,000 young people [under DACA]. But holding them hostage to that type of view is simply not acceptable.”
In the meeting, members said, they pushed Kelly to narrow the scope of a deal, putting aside the President’s previous demands for terminating the diversity lottery visa program and for dramatically cutting back on family reunification programs, and focusing instead just on DACA paired with some form of border security. Kelly did not agree to this framework, the lawmakers said, though he “listened respectfully.”
Several lawmakers independently confirmed to TPM following the meeting that Kelly came unprepared to discuss either of two bipartisan immigration proposals recently put forward, the one in the Senate crafted by Sens. Lindsay Graham (R-SC) and Dick Durbin (D-IL) or the one in the House written by Reps. Will Hurd (R-TX) and Pete Aguilar (D-CA).
“I was surprised he didn’t even know what the Hurd-Aguilar bill was,” Chu said. “He knew about the Goodlatte bill,” she added, referring to a Republican-only proposal that, among other hardline provisions opposed by Democrats, strips federal funding from sanctuary cities.
Rep. Raul Grijalva (D-AZ) told reporters he saw Kelly’s lack of knowledge about the bipartisan bills as “not a good indication.”
“I’m not optimistic,” he said in Spanish. “I didn’t feel that that the General is an effective voice or leader in the White House in order to move this issue.”
Multiple representatives who attended the meeting added that while Kelly was not aware of the details of the bipartisan proposals, he dismissed them as not truly bipartisan.
“He looks at Senators Graham and Durbin as those who regularly work on bipartisan bills, and said, ‘No, I want to bring other people in,'” lamented Gutierrez. “But all of us know that’s how you get things done around here. You find people with common goals, values and ideals who are Republicans and Democrats, and then they cobble something together.”
Kelly’s insistence that far-right immigration hardliners be included in negotiations, Gutierrez said, is “like saying, ‘I want to reform baseball,’ but you insist on including people who say, ‘We should eliminate baseball altogether. I hate baseball.’ You can’t reform it like that.”
Hispanic Caucus members said Wednesday they felt it was not productive to bring up President Trump’s “shithole” remarks, and said Kelly did not say anything overtly vulgar in their meeting. But the lawmakers emphasized that several terms that the administration is using are offensive and revealing of their attitude towards immigration and immigrants.
“He wouldn’t use the word DREAMer,” Chu noted in a statement following the meeting. “Instead, he used ‘DACA people.'”
Speaking to reporters in the ornate hallway outside the meeting room, Chu added that she raised with Kelly that “the term ‘chain migration’ is offensive to us” when referring to the process of citizens and permanent residents sponsoring their relatives to come the United States. “In fact, when the law was passed in 1965, it was called family-based immigration,” she said.
Even seemingly neutral language, Gutierrez said, has taken on a different tone following the infamous “shithole” meeting.
“He said, ‘I am a firm believer in merit-based immigration.’ I was like, ‘Aw, no, that’s not good,'” he said.
When asked what he hears when Kelly uses the term “merit-based,” Gutierrez replied: “The president has been pretty clear that they want people from Norway and not ‘shithole countries’ — and he mentioned Africa and Haiti. So that’s what I hear. Now the veneer has been ripped away about what they really mean. They don’t really mean it’s about security. They don’t really mean it’s about jobs for Americans. It’s about the color of people’s skin and what places they come from.”