×

Bitter immigration fight is no closer to ending after budget deal passes

  • Facing an early March deadline, lawmakers will turn their focus to protecting immigrants who were brought to the U.S. illegally as children.
  • The Senate will start an open debate on an immigration bill next week, while the House will only take up legislation it knows Trump will support.
  • Bipartisan lawmakers have expressed frustration about the difficulty of negotiating with Trump.
Demonstrators hold illuminated signs during a rally supporting the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program (DACA), or the Dream Act, outside the U.S. Capitol building in Washington, D.C., on Thursday, Jan. 18, 2018.
Zach Gibson | Bloomberg | Getty Images
Demonstrators hold illuminated signs during a rally supporting the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program (DACA), or the Dream Act, outside the U.S. Capitol building in Washington, D.C., on Thursday, Jan. 18, 2018.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell is set to fulfill his promise to open debate on an immigration bill next week, but crafting a plan that can pass both chambers of Congress and appease President Donald Trump is no easy task.

As Congress ended a months-long impasse over spending levels and a brief government shutdown Friday morning, lawmakers appeared no closer to ending the bitter fight over protecting hundreds of thousands of young immigrants from deportation. Democratic calls to shield the immigrants contributed to two partial government shutdowns this year, yet Congress still has no plan assured to get bipartisan support.

Lawmakers will dive headfirst into the politically charged battle with only weeks until the March 5 date that the Trump administration set to end the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program. While pending lawsuits could drag out the deadline, the fate of those immigrants who were brought to the U.S. illegally as children is uncertain as Congress pushes for a deal.

Even some of the biggest proponents of shielding the so-called dreamers from deportation have expressed doubts about striking an agreement in time.

"I don't know. Right now, it's tough to see," Republican Sen. Jeff Flake of Arizona said Thursday about the prospects of an immigration bill garnering the needed 60 votes in the chamber.

The Obama-era DACA program shields the young immigrants from deportation and allows them to work or get an education in the U.S. Those immigrants "are not a priority for deportation" if Congress fails to pass new protections, White House chief of staff John Kelly said this week.

Next steps

Democrats and many Republicans seek legal protections for the immigrants shielded by DACA. In exchange for those measures, Democrats support a modest increase in border security funding and even, at one point this year, yielded on providing money for Trump's proposed wall on the border with Mexico.

The Senate will start an open debate on an immigration proposal next week, a condition for the chamber's Democrats to vote to reopen the government in January. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi opposed Friday's budget deal in seeking a similar process in the House.

House Speaker Paul Ryan pledged Thursday to take up an immigration bill once the budget plan passed, saying "we are committed to getting this done." He did not go as far as Pelosi wanted, saying he would bring up only a bill the president supports.

Pelosi criticized Ryan in a statement after the budget deal passed.

"The fight in the House to protect Dreamers is not over. I'm greatly disappointed that the Speaker does not have the courage to lift the shadow of fear from the lives of these inspiring young people," she said.

The Trump administration has proposed a plan to protect up to 1.8 million young immigrants: those registered under DACA who were brought to America as children and those eligible who did not apply. The president and conservative lawmakers want concessions in exchange: the border wall, limits on extended family migration and an end to the diversity visa "lottery" system.

Democrats and some Republicans have opposed the restrictions on legal immigration, leaving unanswered what policy could win bipartisan support.

Trump walks a tight line between protecting the young immigrants, who he says he wants to treat with "heart," and appeasing the conservative base who cheered his campaign pledges to crack down on immigration. Democrats, meanwhile, do not want to go too far in giving concessions to Trump and trampling on the energized liberal base.

Negotiating with Trump

After he signed the budget plan into law Friday, Trump tweeted that, "fortunately, DACA [is] not included in this bill." Earlier in the week, Trump said he would "love" to see a government shutdown if Democrats do not agree to his demands.

"Negotiations to start now!" he added Friday after he ended the shutdown, though Kelly has negotiated with bipartisan congressional leaders for weeks on a possible immigration solution.

Those talks have yielded few results, stoked controversy and led to frustrations among lawmakers about the difficulty of negotiating with Trump. Trump rejected a bipartisan Senate proposal brought to him last month, only two days after telling lawmakers he would sign a plan they passed and take the political heat for it.

He inflamed the debate when he reportedly questioned why the U.S. needed immigrants from "s---hole" African countries.

Kelly stoked fresh backlash this week when he suggested that some immigrants were "too lazy to get off their asses" and apply for legal protection.

Only hours before the January shutdown started, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer thought he might have reached an immigration agreement with Trump. Then, Kelly told the New York Democrat that his proposals were too liberal for Republicans.

Schumer declared that talks with Trump were "like negotiating with Jell-O." Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., another senator leading the DACA talks, has criticized White House aides like Stephen Miller for what he calls Trump's shifting targets for an immigration bill.

Some lawmakers, including Flake, have suggested they may have to fall back on a temporary DACA extension with modest border security measures if lawmakers cannot agree on a broader immigration reform bill.

Flake said Trump "sees a political downside of not fixing" DACA. But he added the president "is only willing to go so far" because he risks angering his base.