Trump’s Scattershot Immigration Remarks Leave Congress Reeling

on January 9, 2018 in Washington, DC.
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images North America

In a sprawling hour-long discussion with Democratic and Republican lawmakers, President Donald Trump took a range of positions on negotiations over the fate of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program—swinging wildly from demanding billions in funding for a border wall and other immigration restrictions in exchange for renewing DACA to endorsing Democrats’ proposal for a “clean” renewal and, later, a complete overhaul of the immigration system.

“If you want to take it that further step, I’ll take the heat,” Trump told the stunned lawmakers. “You are not that far away from comprehensive immigration reform.”

But the President’s tendency to change positions as frequently as he orders Diet Cokes is once again causing a major headache for lawmakers as they attempt to craft policies without a clear idea of what the White House is willing to support. With no agreement yet on whether a DACA deal will be a part of the Jan. 19 spending bill, what the exact status for the 800,000 impacted young immigrants would be, and what forms of “border security” Trump is demanding, the mass confusion is raising the potential for a government shutdown.

Many of the more than two dozen lawmakers who attended Tuesday’s immigration meeting returned to Capitol Hill touting “progress” toward an agreement, but appeared to disagree on every aspect of the plan under discussion. Most pressing, with government funding expiring in less than two weeks, is the question of whether an immigration deal will be part of the next spending bill.

“We continue to believe and insist that it be in this bill,” Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-NY) told reporters. “We have very little faith if it isn’t in a must-pass bill that it’ll ever pass.”

Moments before, at the very same podium, Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-KY) took the opposite position. “It will not be a part of any overall spending agreement,” he said.

Devil in the details

When it came to the actual policy details, the divisions were just as stark.

Republicans touted the meeting for “narrowing down” the immigration deal to four provisions: ending so-called “chain migration,” canceling the visa lottery program, beefing up border security and offering some form of relief for the young immigrants who lost their protection from deportation when Trump canceled the DACA program last year.

But the list is an expansion from the original proposal to pair DACA with border security measures alone, and there is not yet any agreement on any of the four provisions currently under discussion.

“The tone was good, but the devil is in the details,” Schumer observed.

Sen. Jeff Flake (R-AZ), who attended the meeting, also said he would reserve judgement until he knew what the White House means by “comprehensive immigration reform.”

“Everybody says they want it. Defining it is a bigger problem,” he said.

But rather than making those clear policy asks, Trump ended the meeting by throwing up his hands and instructing Congress to work it out on their own, saying he would sign anything put in front of him.

“You folks are going to have to come up with a solution, and if you do I’m going to sign it,” he said.

Scaling the wall

On Monday, in a speech to the American Farm Bureau, Trump repeated his central campaign promise to “build the wall.”

But the one takeaway from Tuesday’s meeting that several Republicans and Democrats confirmed to TPM is that Trump appears to have dropped his demand for a multi-billion dollar wall on the U.S.-Mexico border, instead expressing openness to some form of limited fencing combined with surveillance technology or other security measures.

“The President has backed off any kind of description of a sea-to-shining sea fence or wall,” Sen. James Lankford (R-OK), who attended the White House meeting, told reporters. “That’s one of the things Democrats have pushed very hard on and he consented to that today. The conversation is now about multiple layers of our border system.”

Democrats who were present in the meeting confirmed this impression, but remain wary that the President could change his mind yet again.

“He went from saying it doesn’t need to be a 2,000 mile wall, but maybe a 700 mile wall, because there are places where there are mountains and valleys. So you begin to wonder what exactly will be acceptable,” Sen. Mazie Hirono (D-HI) told TPM. “I suppose it’s progress. But that’s just what he says today. He could go back to saying ‘$18 billion for a wall or no DACA’ tomorrow, depending on who he’s talking to.”

In fact, just a few hours later, Trump appeared to reverse his remarks in the meeting, calling for “the security of the Wall on the Southern Border.”

Asked Tuesday if she knows were the president stands on an immigration deal, Hirono smiled wryly. “You know? I actually don’t,” she said. “It’s all over the place.”

Republicans appeared to be similarly in the dark. Sen. Ron Johnson (R-WI) stammered when asked by TPM if he’s clear on what the president wants, finally saying cryptically: “There’s a host of things. Just pick from the manual. That’s what I’d recommend.”

Duck and cover

Despite the mass confusion and wide policy divides that remain, lawmakers on both sides of the aisle expressed hope that Trump’s nominal embrace of immigration reform more broadly, and DACA protections more narrowly, may give Republicans on Capitol Hill the political cover they need to back such a bill.

“It’s decisive,” Rep. Carlos Curbelo (R-FL) told reporters. “It’s not my style, but a lot of members here wait to take their cues from the White House.”

But several Democrats, including Hirono, expressed concern that the White House was operating more on ignorance and misinformation than a grand strategy, a problem across the executive branch.

“I thought one of the most astounding things in the meeting was his own Homeland Security secretary saying that no DACA people have lost their status,” Hirono told TPM. “Is she not aware that over 10,000 participants have already lost their status, and every day over 100 of them lose their status? That lack of awareness is totally astounding, appalling. You can’t have a Homeland Security secretary who doesn’t even know what’s going on.”

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