The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

White House quietly threatened to veto spending legislation over ‘dreamers’ issue

Development came amid last-minute talks on legislation to avert government shutdown.

Demonstrators gather in front of the Supreme Court during arguments on the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program in November. (Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post)

Thirteen months ago, President Trump shut down much of the federal government over a bitter fight about his proposed wall along the Mexico border.

Last month, his top advisers drew the line over a much smaller target: a provision in Congress’s year-end spending legislation that would have allowed House members to hire immigrants known as “dreamers” to work on Capitol Hill.

In the end, Democratic lawmakers agreed to scrap the language, fearing an uncertain standoff with the White House in the midst of impeachment proceedings. It was one of just a handful of measures that senior Trump administration officials identified as completely unacceptable in final talks ahead of a Dec. 20 government shutdown deadline.

The provision in question would have applied to immigrants who had received temporary work permits under an Obama-era program the Trump administration is trying to end, called Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA.

Immigrants who qualified for DACA must have been brought to the United States as children and meet a number of strict parameters.

The language to allow DACA recipients to work on Capitol Hill was initially accepted by top lawmakers of both parties. It would have stipulated that DACA recipients could work as employees in the Democratic-controlled House of Representatives but not in the Republican-run Senate.

In practice, the proposed provision would likely have affected only a small number of people, and it garnered little attention as lawmakers negotiated two massive packages of appropriations bills leading up to the shutdown deadline.

But the issue — and the White House’s opposition — has symbolic and political significance, because it shows how Trump has adjusted his strategy heading into the 2020 election. As the administration and Congress await a major Supreme Court ruling by summer on the legality of the DACA program, the White House showed it was unwilling to give any ground on the issue. Trump has signaled that he wants to delay any policy changes related to DACA until what he believes will be a Supreme Court ruling that validates his position.

That’s an outcome immigration activists fear would allow the administration to try to trade protections for “dreamers” for stricter limits on immigration. Whichever decision the Supreme Court reaches is likely to force Trump and Democrats into an election-year battle over the nation’s immigration policy with the fate of about 700,000 immigrants protected by the DACA program hanging in the balance.

The previously unreported dispute over House Democrats’ attempt to employ “dreamers” was confirmed by multiple lawmakers and aides of both parties, as well as administration officials, some of whom spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe the secretive budget negotiations. It was a fraught time period last month, in part because talks took place as House Democrats voted to impeach Trump.

“This was something that the president believed very strongly shouldn’t be part of legislation,” said a senior administration official who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the White House’s views on the matter. “There’s a pending Supreme Court case and the potentiality for legislative action, and the idea that you could by statute allow some cohort of individuals who are currently subject to Supreme Court proceedings to be hired by the House didn’t make any sense.”

Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, negotiating on behalf of the administration with Legislative Affairs director Eric Ueland, made “crystal clear” to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) that the provision must be dropped from the $1.4 trillion spending package, or otherwise Trump would veto it, this person said.

Hispanic lawmakers and immigration activists had been more focused on other elements of the budget legislation. For example, they sought to block the White House from securing the $5 billion sought to build more barriers along the Mexico border, among other things.

The DACA measure that would have allowed House congressional offices to hire “Dreamers” as staff members stayed in the spending package up until the final rounds of talks. At that point, as Pelosi negotiated directly with Mnuchin, the White House identified the “dreamers” provision — along with a small handful of other issues, including one involving Ukraine aid — as nonstarters that would provoke a veto, the people involved in the discussions said.

With the House enmeshed in divisive impeachment proceedings, Pelosi relented and dropped the provisions to stave off a shutdown.

Some Hispanic lawmakers remain bitter about the outcome but direct their blame at the White House. The approximately 700,000 immigrants protected by the DACA program — and many others who could be eligible for it — have faced uncertainty for years because of multiple failed attempts by Congress to pass legislation to address their status.

President Barack Obama acted unilaterally to create DACA in 2012, arguing that he was justified because Congress had failed to act. The Trump administration, led by then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions, rescinded the program in 2017, sparking lawsuits that have led to legal limbo ever since.

“It’s appalling that any White House would risk a devastating government shutdown just to stop our brave, patriotic DACA recipients from working in Congress and devoting their talents to the work of our legislative branch,” said Rep. Lucille Roybal-Allard (D-Calif.), a senior member of the Appropriations Committee.

Immigration activists said they view the White House move as symbolic of what they view as the Trump administration’s larger agenda aimed at limiting legal and illegal immigration, which is sure to play a central role in the 2020 campaign.

“It is a larger indicator of what Republicans and Trump have been doing not just to DACA recipients but immigrants as a whole,” said Sanaa Abrar, advocacy director of United We Dream. “It goes into their larger goal to make sure that people are at their most vulnerable, that they’re undocumented, and deport people from this country.”

Trump himself, who has previously spoken of having “great heart” for dreamers, has more recently hardened his tone. As the Supreme Court took up arguments in the case in November, Trump tweeted: “Many of the people in DACA, no longer very young, are far from ‘angels, Some are very tough, hardened criminals.”

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