Senate Democrats on Wednesday backed off their red line over President Trump’s proposed border wall, saying they saw a deal in sight that could include permission to build more fencing as part of a broad agreement to legalize illegal immigrant “Dreamers.”
Mr. Trump, meanwhile, is seeking a much less dramatic wall than the “sea-to-sea” version he touted during the 2016, campaign, presenting Congress with a scaled-back version that would cover 700 miles and cost $18 billion over a decade — though the president said he figures it can be built much faster and cheaper.
While he’s changed on the details, Mr. Trump remains adamant that the wall be included in the current negotiations over how to legalize Dreamers.
“It’s got to include the wall. We need the wall for security. We need the wall for safety. We need the wall for stopping the drugs from pouring in,” the president said during a joint press conference with the Norwegian prime minister Wednesday.
Democrats who had said the wall was a non-starter are beginning to soften. While they’re not rushing to embrace the wall, they have erased red lines drawn months ago.
Trump’s olive branch
Sen. Dianne Feinstein, a California Democrat who attended Tuesday’s White House meeting on immigration, acknowledged that the president had taken a step toward compromise.
“What I picked up from the meeting yesterday was that he was open to a solution and that he felt he required some kind of wall,” she said. “Democrats are open to negotiation.”
House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer said he doesn’t think a wall works, but he recognized Mr. Trump’s “flexibility” and said he wouldn’t rule out accepting a wall.
Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer this week also declined to draw red lines on the wall, saying he saw progress in Mr. Trump no longer seeking a 2,000-mile-long barrier.
Tuesday’s White House meeting produced an agreement that any deal to legalize Dreamers must also include border security, limits to family-based chain migration and changes to the Diversity Visa Lottery program that gives away immigrant visas based purely on luck of the draw.
On Wednesday all sides debated what fits within those four guideposts, with top leaders meeting to talk about scheduling and a path forward.
Ruling reduces pressure
The urgency of a deal appeared to lessen after a federal judge in California ruled late Tuesday night that the Obama-era Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals amnesty that’s protecting some 700,000 Dreamers is legal, and Mr. Trump’s six-month phaseout is illegal.
Judge William Alsup, a Clinton appointee, ordered the government to begin accepting DACA renewal applications again.
Homeland Security didn’t say how it would comply with that ruling, which on its face erases the March 5 phaseout deadline Mr. Trump had set.
But the White House, congressional Democrats and immigrant-rights activists alike brushed aside Judge Alsup’s ruling, saying they still want to speed a deal through as quickly as possible.
“The fact remains — the only way to guarantee the legal status for Dreamers is to pass DACA protections into law, and to do it now,” said Mr. Schumer, embracing the same argument Mr. Trump made when he announced the DACA phaseout last year.
Details left to Congress
Mr. Trump has left the details of a final agreement up to Congress, saying he’ll sign whatever they send him.
Republicans want to limit chain migration, eliminating siblings and adult children from the categories of people that immigrants are able to sponsor for visas. The GOP also wants to cancel the visa lottery, which has been implicated in helping two recent terrorist suspects enter the U.S.
Some left-wing Democrats defend the lottery, but leaders appear to be poised to accept its demise, particularly if the 50,000 visas a year can be recovered and used for other immigrants.
Curtailing chain migration is a bigger ask for Democratic leaders, who are under intense pressure from activist groups not to deal with Mr. Trump.
Those activists have urged Democrats to demand a “clean” bill to grant a full pathway to citizenship to as many as 2 million illegal immigrants, without any conditions. The activists say unless that’s approved, Democrats should risk a shutdown showdown when the next government funding bill is due Jan. 19.
The wall is symbol
While their leaders negotiate, some rank-and-file Democrats in the House made clear they don’t like the direction of the talks.
“No wall for me,” said Rep. Adriano Espaillat, a New York Democrat who was an illegal immigrant from the Dominican Republic before becoming a naturalized citizen. “A wall is a symbol of a bunch of things I object to,” Mr. Espaillat said.
Rep. Richard Neal, Massachusetts Democrat, said Mr. Trump’s shifts on the wall are a recognition of reality. Still, he said any new fencing is a tough sell for his party.
“We are against the wall and I can’t see that changing,” he said. “I think the metaphor of the wall is difficult to overcome.”
Even as some Democrats resist Mr. Trump’s security requests, Republicans moved to stiffen his negotiating hand with a new House bill checking off many of his requests for enhanced immigration enforcement.
Led by Rep. Bob Goodlatte, chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, and Rep. Michael McCaul, chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, the legislation would authorize the border wall, punish sanctuary cities, stiffen penalties for repeat illegal immigrants, make overstaying a visa a misdemeanor crime, allow faster deportation of those involved in the recent surge of illegal immigration across the southwest border, and require mandatory use of E-Verify by all businesses checking the work status of new employees.
The bill would also end the diversity lottery and curtail chain migration by limiting people to only sponsoring their spouses and minor children.
For Dreamers, the bill would give them an officially recognized legal status and work permits — but it would not include a special pathway to citizenship. Those wishing for citizenship would have to access one of the existing methods, such as marrying a U.S. citizen or having an employer sponsor them for a visa.
Mr. Goodlatte said the bill strikes the right balance, offering some relief to Dreamers while making serious gains in security.
“Years of lax enforcement policies have wreaked havoc on our borders,” he said. “We can’t let these dangerous and foolish policies continue.”
Mr. Trump said in Tuesday’s meeting he’s willing to take the heat from the right and the left to strike a deal.
But he’s been insistent throughout that the wall be part of it.
2013 bill could be model
A proposal from the Homeland Security Department, submitted to Congress last week, called for $18 billion in fencing and another $1 billion in new roads to patrol the fencing. The fencing would involve upgrading existing barriers and adding new ones, extending the current 654 miles of barriers to about 970 miles, The Wall Street Journal reported.
That 316 miles of new fencing is not dramatically different than the 350 miles of fencing every Democrat in the chamber voted for in 2013, the last time a major immigration bill reached the chamber floor.
Sen. Bob Corker, a Tennessee Republican who wrote the amendment that added the 350 miles of fencing to that bill, now says that proposal, which also included 20,000 more Border Patrol agents, was “overkill.”
But he said he sees signs of a new deal emerging this year, with Democrats embracing another round of security upgrades.
“Ultimately they have to vote for security,” said Mr. Corker. “It appears to me the White House is moderating their request and I think we are going to get to a good place.”
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