Trump’s Harsh Immigration Rhetoric Makes DACA Fix An Even Heavier Lift

during the State of the Union address in the chamber of the U.S. House of Representatives January 30, 2018 in Washington, DC. This is the first State of the Union address given by U.S. President Donald Trump and his second joint-session address to Congress.
Win McNamee/Getty Images North America

President Trump’s immigration-heavy State of the Union address, laden with warnings about crime and terrorism and heaped with false assertions, may darken the already dimming prospects for a bipartisan deal to protect young immigrants known as Dreamers whose protections Trump revoked last year.

As several separate groups on Capitol Hill meet almost daily to negotiate, they say they have made almost no progress, even on agreeing on the parameters of what an immigration deal could include. Rank-and-file Republicans and Democrats alike say Trump’s insistence, reiterated in the primetime speech and endorsed by GOP leadership, on deep cuts to legal immigration will alienate potential Democratic allies and put the prospects for a narrow deal on DACA in jeopardy.

In his State of the Union speech, Trump doubled down on the four “pillars” his administration has insisted be included in an immigration deal: a path to citizenship for 1.8 million Dreamers, tens of billions of dollars for border walls, the elimination of the diversity visa lottery, and a sharp reduction in family-based immigration.

“These issues should be part of comprehensive immigration reform, but they’re being thrown into the Dreamers issue, making it far more difficult for there to be a consensus,” Rep. Adrián Espaillat (D-NY), a leading member of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, told TPM. 

The most toxic provision, Espaillat and other members of both parties said, was the piece limiting family immigration sponsorship to only spouses and minor children.

“If this law had been active in 1964 when I came to the United States, I wouldn’t be here in the U.S. Congress right now, because my family petitioned for me,” he said. 

Moderate Republicans in the House and Senate are also deeply uncomfortable with Trump’s proposal, which would decrease legal immigration by about 44 percent.

“The family reunification piece is going to be the trickiest part,” Rep. Charlie Dent (R-PA) told TPM. “If he wants to help the nuclear family, as he says, he probably should include parents, too.”

Trump’s untrue assertion that “under the current broken system, a single immigrant can bring in virtually unlimited numbers of distant relatives,” also riled lawmakers and made them more skeptical of Trump as a negotiating partner.

“Yeah, that’s not true. It’s just false and wrong,” Rep. Joaquin Castro (D-TX) told TPM. “I don’t know if he just has a misunderstanding of the law or he’s intentionally misrepresenting the facts.”

Rep. Luis Gutierrez (D-IL), who previously said he would build Trump’s border wall himself if it helped protect Dreamers from deportation, was incensed at this characterization of family sponsorship.

“Is your sister a ‘distant relative,’ Mr. President? Are your adult children distant relatives?” Gutierrez asked, his voice rising over the crowd around him. 

Even before the President’s speech, lawmakers attempting to negotiate a deal for Dreamers by the Trump administration’s deadline of March 5 were growing more pessimistic.

Sen. Dick Durbin (D-IL), who has been meeting almost daily with House and Senate leaders, had a grim assessment when he spoke to TPM on Tuesday. “We haven’t made any progress. We aren’t very close at all,” he said.

Asked how the current stalemate is resolved, Durbin, who has been pushing for a path to citizenship for Dreamers for nearly 20 years, threw up his hands. “I don’t know.”

Asked if he saw any signs of flexibility in the meetings from GOP leadership, he gave a definitive, “No.”

A separate, much larger group of rank-and-file Senators from both parties has been holding their own meetings, attempting to settle their differences using an ornamental talking stick and Girl Scout cookies. But lawmakers participating in those meetings tell reporters there has also been little tangible progress.

“When you get 20 to 30 people, everybody has something a little different to say,” Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) noted as she exited a Tuesday convening of the group. 

“There are a lot of proposals out there but nothing has been conclusively resolved,” added Sen. Doug Jones (D-AL). 

“What’s being discussed is what is the starting point,” Sen. Bob Corker (R-TN) told reporters, adding that any agreements are extremely tentative and could rapidly change or fall apart. “If I gave you information walking out at 4:50, it could be different at 5:10.”

As the deadline for a resolution draws closer, with no breakthrough in sight, immigrants about to lose their DACA status as well as their families and employers are preparing for the worst.

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