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Trump Rebuff of Immigration Deal Puts Deadline Pressure on Talks

Laura Litvan, Erik Wasson, Sahil Kapur
WASHINGTON, DC - JANUARY 11: U.S. President Donald Trump leads a prison reform roundtable in the Roosevelt Room at the White House, on January 11, 2018 in Washington, DC. State and local leaders joined Trump to discuss programs intended to help prisoners re-enter the workforce among other policy initiatives. (Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images)

The struggle for an immigration deal is intensifying after President Donald Trump rejected a bipartisan compromise proposal and questioned why the U.S. accepts immigrants from “shithole countries.”

The debate is turning into a three-way skirmish, as a small group of senators offered the compromise that Trump spurned on Thursday over objections from Republican hardliners, with some Democrats fearing that their leaders may be conceding too much.

The proposal, by both Republican and Democratic senators, was designed to protect young undocumented immigrants from deportation and bolster border security, but the White House said it needed more work.

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“There’s a ways to go,” said Marc Short, the president’s liaison to Congress.

Trump inflamed the already emotionally charged debate by questioning  senators at an Oval Office meeting on why the U.S. takes in immigrants from “shithole countries” like Haiti, El Salvador and African nations rather than places like Norway, according to three people briefed on the conversation. The White House didn’t dispute the quotation, which prompted denunciations from members of Congress on both sides of the aisle.

As it happened, the episode occurred on the eve of the eighth anniversary of an earthquake that devastated Haiti. The nation’s president demanded a meeting with the top U.S. diplomat in Port Au Prince.

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The compromise immigration plan also fell flat with many Republicans on Capitol Hill. One senior congressional aide said the proposal by six senators probably couldn’t pass in either chamber, adding that the main negotiations will now shift to a broader group that includes the No. 2 leaders from both parties in the House and Senate as well as representatives from the White House.

The lack of progress on immigration comes one week before a possible government shutdown after current funding ends Jan. 19. Democrats insist that setting into law protections for young immigrants must be passed along with the funding measure and their votes will be needed for it to pass the Senate.

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The Department of Homeland Security counts 690,000 people currently enrolled in the Obama-era program known as Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, which Trump decided to end as of March 5.

The bipartisan deal presented to Trump by Republican Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and Democrat Dick Durbin of Illinois would provide a pathway to citizenship for the young immigrants brought to the U.S. as children. Their parents could get renewable legal status although they couldn’t become citizens, according to two congressional aides.

Wooing the President

Graham, once a top critic of Trump, has been wooing the president for months, playing rounds of golf and delivering public praise of him. Durbin, the No. 2 Democrat, offered for the first time a chief concession from his party: some money for Trump’s U.S.-Mexico border wall, which Democrats had until now refused to fund.

The six senators led by Graham and Durbin proposed providing $2.8 billion for border security, including $1.6 billion for a wall or fence, technical surveillance and agent training, and $1.2 billion for other border priorities. Immigration slots under a visa lottery program would be used for people in the U.S. who have lost their temporary protected status because of action by the administration or for people from low-immigration countries. 

Trump has been an erratic negotiator, sending mixed signals throughout his presidency on how he would help the young immigrants and what kind of border wall he is demanding. At a White House meeting Tuesday, he seemed to agree with Democratic Senator Dianne Feinstein of California to support passage of a “clean” bill aiding the young immigrants, only to be reminded by House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, a California Republican, that his demands go much further.

He also said he would accept whatever compromise lawmakers come up with. “I’m not going to say, ‘Oh, gee, I want this or I want that.‘”

In an interview with the Wall Street Journal published Thursday, Trump insisted he’s getting close to a deal shielding the young immigrants from expulsion while getting more border resources and an end to the visa program. He said the wall wouldn’t need to cover the entire border, and added that he will get Mexico to pay for it as part of negotiations over the North American Free Trade Agreement.

Short told reporters the Graham-Durbin plan doesn’t do enough to end family-based immigration or build the wall that Trump campaigned on. Some conservative Republicans also dismissed the plan outright.

GOP Senator Tom Cotton of Arkansas said that, like Trump, he wants to limit family-based immigration to DACA recipients’ spouses and minor children. He also said he wants to eliminate the visa lottery program, which is intended to promote diversity.

“The diversity lottery is a joke,” Cotton said. “It serves no humanitarian or economic purpose whatsoever. It should just be ended.”

On Thursday night, Cotton and two Republican colleagues, Chuck Grassley of Iowa and David Perdue of Georgia, released a statement rejecting Democratic arguments that the DACA question had to be resolved as part of any agreement to continue financing the government after the January 19 deadline.

At the same time, there’s a group of Democrats demanding more generous terms. The current diversity visa lottery program benefits thousands of immigrants from Africa and other nations under-represented in the immigrant population, said Congressional Black Caucus Chairman Cedric Richmond of Louisiana.

“It’s the right thing to do and it has become a valuable asset for our country,” said Richmond.

Representative Luis Gutierrez, an Illinois Democrat, said Republicans keep changing the “ransom demands” for the young immigrants known as “dreamers.”

“What does 17,000 people from sub-Saharan Africa have to do with dreamers?” Gutierrez said.

Shutdown Threat

Congress needs to pass at least a short-term extension of current government funding on Jan. 19 to avoid a shutdown. Lawmakers are also trying to work out agreements to increase budget limits for defense and domestic spending and extend a children’s health-care program backed by both parties.

Outside groups are lining up on both sides.

Mark Krikorian, executive director for the Center for Immigration Studies, which advocates for less immigration, said “every element” of the bipartisan proposal is unacceptable -- including giving protected status to parents of DACA recipients, who brought their children here illegally. The White House "would be in deep, deep trouble" with its base if it went along with such a proposal, he said.

Frank Sharry of the pro-immigration group America’s Voice said the bipartisan plan "is the best bet for resolving a crisis that Trump created when he ended DACA." He added, "If Trump listens to the hardliners in his White House and party who want nothing, then he’ll end up with nothing -- except responsibility for putting young Americans on a path to deportation."

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