WASHINGTON — President Trump’s blueprint for another Electoral College victory in 2020 is all about stoking fears on immigration and building a border wall.
So he dispatched his son-in-law Jared Kushner along with immigration hard-liners Steven Miller and Vice President Mike Pence to Capitol Hill Tuesday to rally Republicans around a proposed “merit”-based immigration system that Trump plans to unveil in a speech as soon as this week.
The question is whether Democrats will bargain with an administration hell-bent on steamrolling congressional oversight on so many fronts, including funding for a border wall.
"I don't think it's designed to get Democratic support as much as it is to unify the Republican Party around border security," Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), who chairs the Judiciary Committee, told reporters after the closed-door meeting at the Capitol.
While the details of Kushner’s supposed six-point plan were thin, Graham effectively opened negotiations with Democrats Wednesday with a proposed bill to directly address the flood of Central American migrants arriving with children that’s been overwhelming the U.S. asylum system.
The bill would:
- Require all Central American asylum claims be made at a consulate in their home country, not at the U.S. border
- Return unaccompanied minors from Central America to their origin country, as the U.S. now does for minors from Canada and Mexico
- Hold families with children for up to 100 days, rather than the current max of 20 days mandated by a longstanding court settlement
- Hire 500 new immigration judges to clear the backlog of claims
The goal of the bill is to stem the tide of families coming from Central America partly because they know if they arrive with children they will soon be released into the U.S.
“For the first time in Border Patrol history, nearly half of the adults we apprehended in April brought children,” said Customs and Border Protection Commissioner Kevin McAleenan at the unveiling. “They have clearly received a message: Bring a child and you will be released.”
Graham said he’s willing to trade with Democrats over portions of his proposal. “I’m willing to put other immigration ideas to marry up with this,” he said.
And some Democrats say they’re open to negotiations with Republicans like Graham, even if they’ve lost trust in Trump, which is why their party largely dismissed Tuesday’s field trip by Trump’s immigration brain trust.
“We’ve shown in the Senate that we can get a bill done,” Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) told VICE News just off the Senate floor. “The vice president and the president’s son-in-law should spend time with their boss rather than trying to convince us.”
Border wall money grab
But Democrats are wary that any deal with the White House doesn’t become a stealthy money-grab for the border wall. Just last week — after most lawmakers had left Washington — the Pentagon alerted Congress it was shifting around $1.5 billion in funds that Congress allocated to assist Afghan security forces to build or refit some 80 miles of southern border fencing.
While that move by the Pentagon’s top brass infuriated Democrats who view Trump administration officials as flipping them off at every turn, rejecting basic oversight requests, dismissing congressional subpoenas, and trying to supersede Congress’ constitutionally-mandated control over federal spending.
“It’s foolish. It’s foolish. Foolish. It hurts the – it politicizes the Department of Defense,” Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) told VICE News as he caught an elevator in the Capitol. “The Department of Defense has credibility only if it’s kept out of politics.”
“It’s part of a very dangerous pattern that the administration is involved in,” Rep. John Garamendi (D-Calif.) told VICE News. “It’s basically the accumulation and the transfer of power from the Congress to the executive in a way that is far greater than, perhaps, any other time except in an extreme war, such as World War II.”
Garamendi, who chairs the House Armed Services readiness subcommittee, is vowing that Democrats will flex their muscles when Congress reauthorizes the must-pass National Defense Authorization Act this year.
More moderate Republicans are also upset by the move to go around Congress to try and build the president’s wall after Congress rejected his emergency declaration in January, only to have him later overturn it. That case is now winding its way through the courts.
“I voted against the president’s executive order not because I was opposed to improving our border security but I don’t think it’s appropriate or constitutional for the president to take money that’s been appropriated for one purpose and use it for another,” Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) told VICE News while rushing to catch a tram under the Capitol.
2020 immigration play
Still, other senior Republicans are getting behind Trump’s effort to lob an issue as divisive — and potentially base-energizing — as comprehensive immigration reform into the mix.
“I think it’s unlikely to pass between now and the election, but as somebody who’s running for re-election in 2020, I like the idea of having a plan of what we’re for,” Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas), who was term-limited out as Senate Majority Whip earlier this year. “Sometimes candidates, including the presidential candidates, roll out proposals. Then they run on it, and then if they win, they can claim it as a mandate.”
While Trump’s forcing the military to reallocate money for his top priority at the southern border, even powerful Republicans at the Capitol are growing concerned that Trump remains fixated on his wall even as the needs on the ground have outpaced the rhetoric of the campaign trail.
“You need the walls, but the walls don’t fix this problem,” Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) told VICE News just off the Senate floor last week. “This requires policy change, law change. But the only way that the administration is going to be able to enact the policy change is it’s going to need to see bipartisan support. That’s what I’m trying to work on right now: How do we get bipartisan support for administrative policy change?”
While Trump and his GOP counterparts on Capitol Hill claim they need billions of dollars in additional money to help address the influx of immigrants flooding over the southern border – the Border Patrol reports arresting close to 100,000 people in April alone – Democrats have lost all faith, if they ever had any, in the president.
“This is a failed strategy – he’s tried it before. It failed. He is not going to get this supplemental money, because he’s not utilizing it properly,” Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.) told VICE News at the Capitol. “It’s a humanitarian crisis of their making. The way to solve it is not to build a wall – a vanity wall. Yes, there’s a humanitarian crisis, but he’s created it. And he can uncreate it.”
Cover: President Donald Trump's senior adviser, and son-in-law, Jared Kushner, departs the Capitol after a meeting with Senate Republicans, in Washington, Tuesday, May 14, 2019. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)