Democrats in Congress are quietly preparing to give President Trump something they never thought they would: a vote to fund a wall on the border with Mexico, with the U.S. taxpayers paying for it.
That’s the inevitable conclusion many Democrats (and gleeful Republicans) are privately resigned to this week as two weeks of talks begin in an attempt to reach a deal on protections for undocumented immigrants brought to the U.S. as children as part of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program (DACA), established under Obama.
The two sides are aiming to reach a deal on immigration by Feb. 8, when the government runs out of money again. If they don’t, the Trump administration has set DACA to expire on March 5, when both sides face the specter of families split apart by deportations of people to countries they’ve barely known. Public polls show that the vast majority of voters, including a majority of Republicans, support allowing Dreamers to remain in the United States.
And even though Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer said the wall is “off the table,” earlier this week, Democrats described that as more of a negotiation posture than an absolutist position. Schumer clarified that he didn’t mean the wall was off the table forever. In a statement to VICE News, he said “the wall offer was part of a broader deal. The president rejected that broader deal, so the offer is off the table.”
And many Democrats argue that funding the wall is the least-bad of a bunch of compromises they’ll have to make to get a deal done with immigration hard-liners in Congress and the White House. As a result, many Democrats are now more open to the wall after steadfastly blocking it for Trump’s first year in office.
"If I have to put bricks in to save lives, I’m buying bricks”
“I think it’s a monumental waste of money and monumental stupidity, but if that’s what it’s going to take, if I have to put bricks in to save lives, I’m buying bricks,” Democratic Rep. Luis Gutierrez, one of the most outspoken advocates for immigrant rights, said on Saturday.
Republicans have the upper hand in negotiations following Democrats’ failed government shutdown effort over the weekend, and now they are willing to use the DACA program to extract immigration concessions from Democrats. And near the top of that list is the wall.
President Trump put it succinctly in an 11:07 p.m. tweet Tuesday night: “if there is no Wall, there is no DACA.” The president told reporters on Wednesday night that he would request $25 billion for it next week.
And yet, funding for the wall — not a physical wall along the entire border but rather a series of border security measures — seems to be an inevitable chip the Democrats will play to get an immigration deal done. “Sen. Schumer’s already indicated that he would go for more. Republicans will go for more,” Republican Sen. Jeff Flake of Arizona, who is crafting one of those bipartisan proposals, told Politico Tuesday. “It’s just how much more we can get from the Democrats.”
Some on Capitol Hill have suggested that the ultimate deal may look a lot like the 2013 comprehensive immigration bill, which provided tens of billions of dollars for border security, including fencing. But instead of providing a pathway to citizenship for the estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants, this would deal only with the Dreamer population, showing how much more control Republicans have in Washington compared to just 5 years ago.
Republicans in Congress and President Trump are also compiling a list of demands that go beyond the wall, and after staring Democrats down during the government shutdown last weekend, they have the leverage to get it. Now, instead of tacking on citizenship for Dreamers to a must-pass spending bill—as Democrats attempted to do before reversing course on Monday—the Republican-controlled Congress is set to consider Dreamers only as part of a more comprehensive immigration bill.
“We want a big deal that solves the reason we have a DACA problem in the first place,” White House budget director Mick Mulvaney told CNN on Tuesday. Asked about Trump’s official position on Dreamers, Mulvaney made clear that it was transactional: “It depends on what we get in exchange.”
“Democrats are going to have to give in to some of the priorities of the House Republicans"
The other proposals Republicans are considering include upending the system that allows families to sponsor relatives for citizenship; ending the diversity visa lottery program, which issues up to 50,000 visas a year to people from countries that are underrepresented in the United States; mandating e-verify for all employers; and dedicating tens of billions to border security.
“Democrats are going to have to give in to some of the priorities of the House Republicans, the president, and the Republicans in the Senate,” said Ben Williamson, the spokesman for Republican Rep. Mark Meadows of North Carolina, who is the head of the conservative Freedom Caucus. All Republicans have to do is convince nine Democratic senators to agree to their proposal and unite their own caucus.
But Democrats also risk a revolt on the left if they give in to some of these demands. Grassroots leaders told VICE News that Democrats should vote against any bill that so radically changes the immigration system, even if it means that no bill passes and Dreamers start being deported. Instead, they argue that Democrats should vote “no” and focus on taking back Congress so they can pass the DREAM Act without strings attached.
“It’s not the case that a terrible bill is better than no bill,” Ben Wikler, the Washington director at MoveOn.org, told VICE News. “If Republicans try to move a white nationalist wish list with DACA protections, there’s every chance that the grassroots will decide instead to focus on taking over Congress and pass a clean DREAM Act next year.”
But Republicans argue that the only way they can provide citizenship, or “amnesty” as they call it, to hundreds of thousands of people is if they take steps to prevent more undocumented immigrants from coming in.
“You want to make sure you’re not back here in five years, so you have to deal with border security, and you have to deal with the chain, so that the DACA population can’t come in and legally then sponsor their parents,” Republican Sen. David Perdue of Georgia said this week.
The Trump administration will reveal its own immigration framework on Monday. Trump will deliver his State of the Union address the next day, and immigration is expected to be a key topic.
"Awful pictures of Dreamers being deported, I think, will rally the nation”
The owner of a construction company that built one of the wall prototypes this past year will be in attendance as a guest of Republican Rep. Kevin Cramer of North Dakota. "As Congress develops comprehensive immigrant enforcement legislation, I am proud to know a North Dakota company is a finalist to construct the border wall between our nation and Mexico,” said Cramer in a statement.
The Trump administration has acknowledged that the president’s campaign trail concept of a wall across the roughly 2,000-mile border is unrealistic. Instead, the Department of Homeland Security released an $18 billion proposal this month for more than 700 miles of new and replacement barriers on the Mexican border.
“Sometimes it’s a fence, sometimes it’s a wall, sometimes it’s a barrier. But it’s always part of a system which includes technology, which includes personnel,” Republican Sen. John Cornyn of Texas, the second-highest-ranking Republican in the Senate, told Bloomberg this week.
Schumer suggested on Rachel Maddow’s MSNBC show Tuesday night that if they can’t get a deal by March 5, then the images of Dreamers being deported could give Democrats more leverage in the negotiations.
“If they don’t do it by March 5, the awful, awful, awful pictures of Dreamers being deported, I think, will rally the nation,” he said.
Or as Adrian Reyna, the director of membership for the immigrant-rights organization United We Dream put it: “We are officially now bargaining chips.”