Trump offers limited 'Dreamer' protections in exchange for border wall — and Democrats quickly say no

Key Points
  • President Donald Trump offered limited protections for so-called Dreamer immigrants in exchange for $5.7 billion to build his proposed border wall. 
  • Even before his remarks Saturday, Democrats reject the offer as inadequate. 
  • Congress and the White House are trying to end the longest government shutdown ever. 
  • The partial government shutdown has led to about 800,000 federal workers missing paychecks and disrupted some key government services. 
President Donald Trump speaks to reporters as he meets U.S. political and military leaders during an unannounced visit to Al Asad Air Base, Iraq December 26, 2018.
Jonathan Ernst | Reuters

President Donald Trump on Saturday proposed limited legal protections for undocumented immigrants in exchange for money to build his proposed border wall, a plan meant to put pressure on congressional Democrats as the longest government shutdown ever drags into its 29th day.

In remarks at the White House, Trump again pushed for $5.7 billion in U.S. funding to build "steel barriers in high-priority locations" — different from the Mexican government-funded concrete wall across the entire southern border that he proposed as a candidate. But the proposal quickly came under fire from recalcitrant Democrats, as well as conservatives leery of any deal that embraced "amnesty."

The offer likely will not lead to a deal to reopen the nine U.S. agencies that remain unfunded as concerns grow about the 800,000 federal workers going without pay. Before Trump announced the proposal Saturday, Democratic leaders rejected it as inadequate or even "unacceptable" as details emerged in media reports.

The president backed legislation to give more than 700,000 immigrants, known as "Dreamers," temporary legal status and work authorization for three years if their protection gets revoked. He also supported a three-year extension of the legal status of immigrants temporarily protected from deportation.

The president called his plan "straightforward, fair, reasonable and common sense" with "lots of compromise." Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell pledged to bring the bill to a vote this week, which will fail unless seven Democrats support it. McConnell previously said he would not move a plan to end the government shutdown unless both the president and Democratic leaders back it.

Trump described his Saturday offer as a way to "break the logjam and provide Congress with a path forward to end the government shutdown and solve the crisis on the southern border." He did not mention the government worker furloughed or working without pay during his comments.

Trump said the proposal includes some other provisions:

  • $800 million in "urgent humanitarian assistance"
  • $805 million for "drug detection technology to help secure our ports of entry"
  • 2,750 more border patrol agents and law enforcement officials
  • 75 new immigration judge teams
  • A mechanism to allow Central American minors to apply for asylum in their home countries

The olive branch comes as Trump faces pressure to end the partial closure that has inflicted financial pain on government workers, and disrupted services from food inspection to airport security. The president's demand for money to construct the barrier — and Democrats' refusal to fund it — led to the funding lapse that polls say Americans are increasingly blaming on Trump.

Here's the true cost of a government shutdown
Here's the true cost of a government shutdown

The offer likely died before Trump even made it public. Democrats — and even some Republicans and Trump aides — have urged the president to back bills passed by the Democratic-held House to temporarily reopen the government before they hold border security talks.

In a statement before Trump spoke Saturday, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi called the proposal "a compilation of several previously rejected initiatives, each of which is unacceptable and in total, do not represent a good faith effort to restore certainty to people's lives." New York Democratic Senator Chuck Schumer called the proposal "one-sided and ineffective" in a statement.

Schumer tweet

Democrats noted that the proposal would not offer as much certainty to immigrants who, under previously discussed plans, would have been legally protected for longer and could have had a path to citizenship.

"It is unlikely that any one of these provisions alone would pass the House, and taken together, they are a non-starter," Pelosi added.

Senate Minority Whip Dick Durbin — the chamber's second-ranking Democrat and one of the leading voices for the so-called Dreamers — also said he "cannot support the offer as reported and do not believe it can pass the Senate." He said he would join talks to "resolve all outstanding issues" on immigration after the government is funded.

'A lot of conservatives are livid'

Some pro-Trump conservatives who back the president's immigration policy criticized his sweeteners for Democrats on Saturday. Rep. Steve King, an Iowa Republican who recently sparked bipartisan condemnation for racist comments about white supremacy, tweeted: "NO AMNESTY 4 a wall!"

Firebrand media personality Ann Coulter also tweeted that "Trump proposes amnesty." She added: "We voted for Trump and got Jeb!" She referenced former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, a 2016 GOP presidential hopeful who lost to Trump after he proposed more centrist immigration policy. Meanwhile, right-leaning radio host Erick Erickson said the initial reactions from his listeners showed conservatives were "livid." 

Erickson tweet

Trump said Saturday that he expected some Democrats to support the plan. However, none of the party's senators — not even the handful of more centrist voices from pro-Trump states — had endorsed the proposal shortly after the president's remarks.

The likely rejection still leaves unclear a path to reopening about a quarter of the government. In December, Pelosi rejected a potential plan to fund the wall, in exchange for legal protections or a possible path to citizenship for the immigrants.

When Republicans held both chambers of Congress last year, a more comprehensive agreement to resolve both issues fell apart. Trump rejected a deal that included $25 billion in border wall funding, along with legal status and a possible path to citizenship for up to 1.8 million undocumented immigrants. Lawmakers have sought a solution to protect the immigrants for years, and made it more of a priority when Trump tried to end the Obama-era Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals in 2017.

"There seemed to be very little new" in Trump's speech Saturday, said Carl Tobias, the Williams Chair in law at the University of Richmond School of Law. As the Supreme Court declined to take up Trump's decision to end DACA in its current term, meaning it could remain intact for nearly a year longer, Trump's three-year extension offer "means less," he told CNBC in an email.

"His attempts to appear reasonable are not very persuasive when he offers so little that is new," Tobias said. "If McConnell brings up a bill with these ideas, it may not even pass in the Senate and surely not in the House. The shutdown promises to continue."

A conversation last year about immigrants with temporary protected status in part led to talks collapsing. Durbin said Trump referred to Haiti and African countries as "s---hole" nations.

The president later claimed the senator "blew DACA."

— CNBC's Javier David contributed to this report

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