On DACA, old political fault lines – but new room for optimism

Some lawmakers say Tuesday's televised negotiations helped them inch toward a deal to aid an estimated 700,000 young people brought illegally to the US as children. Also Tuesday, a federal judge issued an injunction temporarily blocking White House plans to end the DACA program in March.

Evan Vucci/AP
Sen. Dick Durbin (D) of Illinois, left, and Rep. Steny Hoyer (D) of Maryland, listen as President Trump speaks during a meeting with lawmakers on immigration policy in the Cabinet Room of the White House. Many of Mr. Trump's policy initiatives during his first year in office have appeared to penalize Democratic states.

After months of wrangling over the fate of young unauthorized immigrant “Dreamers,” both Republicans and Democrats are encouraged. Thanks to a remarkable, mostly public negotiating session with President Trump on Tuesday, they have at least settled on the scope of a deal.

The urgency of the situation – the program ends in March – and the narrowness of the deal are helping to push them along. Both sides also seemed able to accept that a wall does not mean a 2,000-mile concrete barrier across the southern border. But divisions over details remain, with no guarantee that lawmakers will be able to reach a deal.

On the wall, for instance, “the problem is that both sides have been rhetorically locked into positions on things,” says Theresa Brown, immigration policy director at the Bipartisan Policy Center (BPC). “They put it in binary [terms] and that’s not a basis to make compromises.”

Adding to the complexity is a chief executive whose propensity for dealmaking can override both political predictability and party ideology. There's also a federal judge’s injunction issued Tuesday night.

The meeting, hosted by President Trump, included 25 congressional Republicans and Democrats and served to lay out the scope of the debate over the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, program. Former President Barack Obama signed DACA into being in 2012 as an executive action, offering temporary protection to some 700,000 unauthorized immigrants brought to the country as children and giving them the ability to work legally in the United States.

In September, the Trump administration rescinded the program and gave Congress six months to come up with a legislative solution.

Before a crew of surprised reporters, lawmakers and the president hashed out the four issues that they say need to be addressed immediately: DACA, border security, reforms to family-based immigration – also known as chain migration – and an end to the diversity visa lottery program, which awards a restricted number of visas to people from countries that have relatively few immigrants in the US. Nailing down those four points is a crucial step toward any resolution on DACA, both lawmakers and political analysts say.

Some lawmakers came away with a measure of optimism that on DACA, at least, there is a path that doesn’t lead to partisan gridlock. It’s a marked shift from the tone that has long clouded immigration negotiations – such as the comprehensive immigration reform bill that a group of eight bipartisan senators crafted and helped pass in 2013, only to be ignored in the GOP-controlled House.

“It's encouraging that the president seems open to a narrow deal protecting the Dreamers and to tackle some of the more difficult issues down the road as a part of a separate comprehensive immigration reform,” said Senate minority leader Chuck Schumer (D) of New York, who was part of the 2013 Gang of Eight, to reporters after the meeting. “That's a plan we agree with.”

“As long as we deal with those four issues in a meaningful way, certainly it becomes at least a bill that conservatives can consider supporting,” adds North Carolina Rep. Mark Meadows (R), who chairs the conservative House Freedom Caucus. “It really gives us a basis for having a meaningful conversation and hopefully passing a law that has eluded most other presidents.”

But the meeting with the president also highlighted fault lines on immigration between the two parties, who have not reached a consensus even on the deadline for coming up with legislation: Republicans say they have until March 5, which is when the Trump administration planned to start to shutter DACA, while Democrats are calling for a resolution by Jan. 19, when current government funding is set to run out. Looming over the entire discussion is a ruling by a federal judge in San Francisco Tuesday night that temporarily blocks Trump’s plan to wind down DACA while the issue plays out in the courts. What effect that ruling could have on Congress’s efforts to find a bipartisan solution for the immigrants involved remains to be seen.

Further rifts surfaced as talk turned to the definitions of terms like “border security” – is it a wall or isn’t it? – and “chain migration” – would restrictions apply to all unauthorized families, or just beneficiaries of DACA?

Republican lawmakers also urged the president to clarify his own views on the proposed legislation. His apparent flexibility in yesterday’s meeting could either help move negotiations along, observers say, or the lack of clarity could stymie them ­– adding an additional level of complication.

“The lens we need to be looking through is not only what could we agree to among ourselves on a bipartisan basis, but what will you sign into law. Because we all want to get to a solution here, and we realize the clock is ticking,” Sen. Charles Grassley (R) of Iowa told Trump Tuesday. “But if we would write a bill that you don’t like and you veto it, we’re talking about a 67-vote threshold – two-thirds in the United States Senate. So that's the reality of negotiating in good faith and getting something you can sign.”

Twenty years ago, both parties were about evenly divided on whether or not immigrants were a strength to or a burden on the country.

“Republicans are conflicted over a number of things to do with immigration,” says Carroll Doherty, director of political research at the Pew Center for People and the Press. In that sense the party maintains the same schisms it had two decades ago, with better-educated Republicans more likely to view immigrants positively, he says.

As their constituencies grew more diverse, however, “You see Democrats taking a more liberal attitude,” Mr. Doherty says. “Among Democrats, there’s overwhelming support for a path to legal status.”

The Tuesday discussion unfolded along similar lines. Democrats trying to provide a path to citizenship to as many unauthorized individuals as possible have to figure out how to concede to tighter border security measures, which will likely include some kind of wall, says Matt Mackowiak, president of political consulting firm Potomac Strategy Group. Republicans, on the other hand, have to straddle an opportunity to earn bipartisan support for immigration reforms they’ve long wanted with calls from hardline constituents who are against any form of amnesty for unauthorized immigrants.

“There’s no doubt there are cross pressures here,” Mr. Mackowiak says.

The president’s actions during the meeting also sparked conflicting reactions that further displayed the yawning gap between the two parties’ perspectives – and their lack of trust in each other. Representative Meadows and Sen. David Perdue of Georgia, both Republicans, lauded Mr. Trump’s efforts to hammer out the scope of the negotiation while giving both sides a chance to say their piece.

“I think the president is clear on what he wants and has led on what he wants,” Meadows says. “The question is: Can we display the intestinal fortitude that it would take to get it done in the House and Senate?”

Others remained skeptical, noting that Trump is known for making sweeping statements on complex policy issues that he later walks back. “We've had good conversations with him about this before only to have him back away when the right wing freaks out,” one Democratic aide says.

The Democratic leadership also insists on tying DACA to spending negotiations set to end Jan. 19, with Senator Schumer noting that he has “very little faith that if it’s not in a must-pass bill, that it will ever pass.”

Despite it all, there is a sense among some that yesterday’s meeting was a step in the right direction. Indeed, the narrower the scope and the longer each side stays open to discussing what they want to achieve within a deal, the better the chances of coming to a political accord, says Ms. Brown at BPC.

“For a compromise to take place, both sides have to be able to claim a win, and on the piece most important to them,” she says. “The easiest thing would be a narrower deal.”

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