WASHINGTON – White House officials have told key Republican leaders on Capitol Hill that President Donald Trump is open to cutting a deal in an upcoming spending bill to protect young immigrants from deportation in exchange for border wall funding, according to four GOP officials briefed on the talks.
The offer could represent a significant shift for Trump, who in January insisted on much broader immigration restrictions in exchange for any protections for “dreamers” – the young immigrants brought to the United States illegally as children, some of whom have been protected under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program that Trump canceled in September.
Now, with the DACA cancellation tied up in the courts and no clear path for stand-alone immigration legislation, the officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the negotiations, said Trump is warming to a simpler deal that would allow his administration to quickly start work on a U.S.-Mexico border wall – a centerpiece of his 2016 presidential campaign.
One idea under consideration is a three-year extension of the DACA program in exchange for three years of wall funding, a GOP official said. This official said the talks, which are being led by senior policy adviser Stephen Miller and legislative affairs head Marc Short, were fluid.
White House spokesman Raj Shah said in a statement later Wednesday that the administration opposes a “three for three” deal, which some moderate Republicans already have floated.
Instead, Shah said, Congress ought to include wall funding in the upcoming spending bill as a matter of course.
“Separately, we have never stopped working to negotiate an immigration reform package that addresses DACA, stops illegal immigration, and secures and modernizes our legal immigration system,” he said.
But Democrats have made clear that they are unwilling to agree to any wall funding absent protections for dreamers, and the upcoming spending bill is probably the last chance for Trump to lock in a deal ahead of the November midterm elections. And if Democrats retake the House, it will be even more difficult for Trump to demand wall funding.
A deal could come together quickly: Congress must pass a spending bill before a March 23 deadline, and congressional negotiators hope to release draft legislation as soon as this week.
Democratic aides familiar with the ongoing spending talks said that Republicans have not yet formally proposed any immigration deal and that they are skeptical about whether lawmakers of either party would warm to the idea before the deadline.
News of the White House offer generated a mixed reactions Wednesday.
“With everything else that’s going on, I just don’t see . . . the DACA issue being resolved in the next week,” said Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn, R-Texas, who has backed broader immigration cutbacks. A key Senate Democrat, Robert Menendez, N.J., was similarly skeptical: “I’m not thrilled about including anything for a temporary fix.”
But Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wis., chairman of the Senate Homeland Security and Government Affairs Committee, said he is open to a short-term deal: “If the president supports that, I certainly won’t object.”
Senate Minority Whip Richard Durbin, D-Ill., said a Trump offer could not be discounted entirely: “He’s totally unreliable, but I am grasping at straws to find something to help 780,000 DACA people who run the risk of deportation.”
On Tuesday, Trump looked at prototypes for a border wall that have been erected in San Diego and, in remarks there, repeated bold and unproved claims about the plan’s benefits.
“It will save thousands and thousands of lives, save taxpayers hundreds of billions of dollars by reducing crime, drug flow, welfare fraud, and burdens on schools and hospitals,” he said. “The wall will save hundreds of billions of dollars – many, many times what it’s going to cost.”
Trump’s willingness to make a deal comes as congressional leaders had all but given up on acting to protect dreamers before November’s midterm elections. Democrats, who forced a three-day government shutdown in January over the issue, have moved on to other fights, while Republicans have shown little urgency to finding a solution – especially since the Supreme Court rejected the Trump administration’s bid to accelerate the pending judicial review of DACA’s cancellation.
But Trump’s desire to build a wall could get talks moving again.
The immigration framework he issued in January called for $25 billion in wall funding, alongside changes to immigration law that would curtail two key pathways for legal immigrants by ending the Diversity Immigrant Visa Program, which distributes 50,000 visas a year through a lottery system, and by scaling back family-based immigration rules. In exchange, Trump proposed offering legal status and an eventual path to citizenship for up to 1.8 million dreamers, going well beyond those protected under DACA.
But the White House proposal never gained bipartisan momentum – with Democrats rejecting the legal immigration cutbacks even as they conceded funding for a border wall – and it won only 39 votes in a Feb. 15 Senate test vote. A bill that would preserve the $25 billion in wall funding but set aside most of the legal immigration cutbacks won 54 votes, short of the 60 necessary for passage.
The outlines of the deal that Trump is now willing to explore are much narrower, said the officials familiar with the offer: a two- or three-year extension of the DACA program, which now protects about 690,000 immigrants, coupled with an unspecified amount of border wall funding – hewing to a framework that some GOP moderates explored in the aftermath of February’s failed Senate votes.
A three-year DACA extension could essentially take immigration off the congressional agenda until after the 2020 presidential election by removing the threat of deportation for the young immigrants covered by the program.
AshLee Strong, a spokeswoman for House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., declined to address the discussions. “We aren’t negotiating the [spending bill] through the press,” she said.
A spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., did not immediately respond to a request for comment Wednesday morning.
Ryan told reporters Wednesday that he would not discuss specific aspects of the spending bill but said: “Our goal is to get this done as fast as possible. Stay tuned.”
The cutbacks on legal immigration emerged as key elements for some Republicans on Capitol Hill, where Trump allies such as Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., and members of the House Freedom Caucus called the restrictions a key element in moving toward a “merit-based” immigration system – a term Trump has frequently repeated in his tweets and at public appearances.
It is unclear whether House conservatives would back a narrower deal. But it may not matter: congressional leaders do not expect many conservative hard-liners to vote for any spending bill, let alone one that would extend protections for dreamers without major new immigration restrictions.
One prominent bloc of House conservatives opposed any short-term deal Wednesday: The Republican Study Committee said in a tweet that its members “are united behind” a much broader immigration bill written by House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte, R-Va., and House Homeland Security Committee Chairman Michael McCaul, R-Texas.