Chances of an immigration deal in Congress appeared dead Thursday after the House approved a $1.3 trillion spending bill with no protections for young undocumented immigrants and only a minor down payment on President Trump’s proposed border wall, prompting a Washington blame game that could have ramifications in November.
The White House aggressively tried to deflect responsibility for the failure even though it was Trump who ended the Obama-era Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program last fall. Trump aides accused Democrats of rejecting White House proposals in order to use the issue as “a political weapon” ahead of the midterm elections.
Democrats want to use immigrants “as pawns in their game,” White House Legislative Affairs Director Marc Short told reporters. “They do not want a solution to this problem.”
Democrats and immigration advocates fiercely rejected those charges, noting that Trump created the crisis in the first place. They argued that the White House scuttled any hopes of a deal on DACA by adding demands for excessive border control resources in return for providing a legal status to “dreamers” who have lived in the country without documents since they were children.
During months of negotiations, Republicans, at the White House’s urging, sought $25 billion for the wall on the border with Mexico, along with cuts to legal immigration programs. After the Senate defeated four bills last month, the White House and Democrats sought to narrow the scope of the talks, but the president’s proposal for the wall money to extend DACA for just three years proved a dealbreaker.
The upshot was that Trump stood to win just $1.6 billion in the spending bill that the White House said would go toward 110 miles of border wall. But Democrats disputed that interpretation, saying the funding would mostly be dedicated to upgrading and replacing existing fencing and building some levees, not for construction of parts of the wall the president has promoted. Trump’s stated goal is to build 700 miles of border barriers.
Democrats predicted that the failure on Trump’s side would harm him with his conservative base.
“He would’ve actually fulfilled one of his goals, even though I abhor that goal,” Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) said. “He would have solved a major immigration question that’s going to tug at his administration moving in the days ahead.”
Meanwhile, an estimated 690,000 immigrants on DACA, which offers renewable two-year work visas, remain in limbo after more than six months of promises by the president and members of Congress that a deal was possible. Thousands more who have reached the age of eligibility for the program cannot apply.
Two federal judges have issued temporary injunctions blocking the administration from making good on plans to let DACA work permits begin expiring this month, but advocates said the uncertainty around the program has left participants fretful.
The legal fight over the program is expected to wind through the appellate courts and, potentially, reach the Supreme Court in the fall.
For dreamers, the outcome is the latest crushing disappointment after years of promises from Democrats, and some Republicans, that the political atmosphere in Washington was conducive to a legislative solution to provide them permanent legal status.
Advocates said immigrant communities blame Trump’s hard-line immigration stance for the collapse of the talks, but they acknowledged there continues to be frustration with Democrats for not putting up a stiffer fight.
“There’s no doubt that Trump is the number one person to blame,” said Lorella Praeli, director of immigration policy and campaigns at the American Civil Liberties Union. She served as an adviser to Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign. “But I also think Democrats have to put up a fight over and over again, especially as we get closer to the 2018 midterms and shift into a presidential election cycle.”
At least tactically, Democrats have done a complete turnaround in just a few months.
In January, enough caucus members were willing to vote against spending measures without protections for dreamers that the federal government endured a three-day shutdown over the deadlock on immigration.
But now, a healthy number of Democrats are supporting the spending bill without those protections.
Senior Democrats rationalize their shift with two main arguments: They fended off other Trump-backed immigration measures they said were harmful, and the 2,232-page spending bill contains several other policy victories for the party.
For instance, the number of detention beds funded in the spending package is about 10,000 fewer than what the White House had first sought in its budget request for this fiscal year. The Trump administration had also demanded $25 billion for his long-prized wall, but secured $1.6 billion — a pot of cash that came with strings attached on how it could be spent.
“It turned out to be, we’re largely successful on the deportation side, and certainly on the wall side of this equation,” Sen. Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.) said. “But we couldn’t reach an agreement with Trump and the Republicans on the DACA and dreamers side.
“There are terrific wins. It really makes it a difficult vote,” he added. “But the biggest single loss is the failure to deal with DACA and dreamers.”
Rep. Lucille Roybal-Allard (Calif.), the top Democrat on the House panel overseeing homeland security funding, also acknowledged the internal struggle for the party between using scorched-earth tactics for dreamers and advancing other Democratic priorities.
“I think what happened is that once we got the caps, that there was so much more money for the other programs. Education, health care, all this,” she said. “It was very difficult for a lot of folks, and there was a lot of weighing the pros and cons.”
That is doing little to sate the fury among immigration advocates, who have forcefully pressured both Democratic and Republican lawmakers for a permanent fix since Trump announced in September that he would wind down the Obama-era program.
Rep. Luis V. Gutiérrez (D-Ill.) said Democrats “failed” because immigrants are not a priority.
“They’re not going to stand up unequivocally for immigrants,” he said. “It’s really almost despicable that people are now talking about [how] the dreamers are protected by the courts, we can wait this out until November and get a better deal.”
Meanwhile, conservatives and Trump allies vented about how Republicans weren’t able to secure more immigration enforcement resources demanded by their base, given that the GOP controls both houses of Congress and the White House.
House Freedom Caucus Chairman Mark Meadows (R-N.C.) argued that the amount of wall funding was minuscule, and he mocked the security barriers outlined in the omnibus spending bill as merely border levees and a small amount of new fencing.
Referring to House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), Meadows said: “Perhaps they can express the dynamics of the negotiations and why there weren’t more conservative wins.”
“It’s a frustration for me, too,” said Sen. David Perdue (R-Ga.) “But the reality is, they have all the cards when it comes to an omnibus like this, the Democrats.
“When you have a president in the White House who says he has certain things he wants, you got Republican control of the Senate and Republican control of the House, the minority party actually has a lot of power when you get into an omnibus situation,” Perdue said.