An effort to protect young Dreamer immigrants from deportation never really had much chance of squeezing into the last bill Congress must pass this election year. That's why bargainers from both parties were surprised when the White House tried anyway.
The catch: It was bait to win more money for President Donald Trump's precious border wall with Mexico. The last-gasp White House attempt came as bargainers completed the huge spending measure that lawmakers aim to approve this week, participants and observers of the budget negotiations said Wednesday.
The effort failed, and Trump ended up getting just $1.6 billion for his wall and other border security steps, a year's worth of funds. That left prospects dim that Congress would act this year to renew the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, or DACA, as Democrats eyeing a potential House takeover in November's elections become increasingly resistant to helping Trump build his wall.
"Until they stop acting like idiots and stop trying to use Dreamers as hostages to pass their stupid xenophobic laws and stupid ideas like the border wall, nothing changes," Rep. Ruben Gallego, D-Ariz., a member of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, said Wednesday.
Trump took a different view, expressed in a tweet late Wednesday: "Democrats refused to take care of DACA. Would have been so easy, but they just didn't care. I had to fight for Military and start of Wall."
By one account, Trump began calling congressional GOP leaders two weeks ago saying he wanted long-term funding for his wall and would trade it for a short-term renewal of DACA. Trump ended the program last year, though federal judges have ordered the administration to keep renewing DACA's two-year permits until legal challenges to Trump's action are resolved.
A different person said that in talks Sunday at the Capitol, White House officials said they wanted $25 billion — the full amount Trump has proposed for the wall — in exchange for extending DACA protections through September 2020. When Democrats countered that for that sum they wanted a chance at citizenship for 1.8 million immigrants in DACA, the White House turned it down and chances for a deal dissipated.
The program, created by President Barack Obama, temporarily shields from deportation a group of immigrants brought to the U.S. illegally as children. The talks were described by aides and advocacy groups from both sides on condition of anonymity because the negotiations were conducted privately.
Bargainers discussed trading a three-year DACA extension for three years of wall money, some sources said, or five for five. Some said the administration went further and also wanted Democrats to include more money for enforcement agents and beds for detained immigrants and include language making it easier to deport immigrants in gangs, steps they were unwilling to take.
Even a simpler compromise — a DACA extension for wall money — has encountered opposition from both sides but internal divisions, too.
Large numbers of Republicans don't want to protect immigrants here illegally, period, and House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., has been reluctant to call a House vote on any proposal a GOP majority opposes. Other Republicans have wanted a deal, arguing that immigrants help the economy and booting hundreds of thousands of them who've lived here since childhood can be a damaging political problem in November.
"We just blew a great opportunity to do something substantial on immigration," said Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., who's long sought a bipartisan deal on the issue. "I think the White House overplayed their hand."
Some Democrats say bringing any stability to immigrants perpetually worried about deportation would be worth the trade-off. But many despise the idea of helping Trump build his wall in exchange for a temporary reprieve for DACA immigrants.
They also remember the first two months of this year when Trump seemed to embrace several efforts at compromise, only to walk away from them after conservatives objected. And they have bitter memories of White House opposition to a bipartisan plan that the Senate rejected last month after Trump's Department of Homeland Security distributed a memo saying the proposal "ignores the lessons of 9/11" and would "be the end of immigration enforcement in America."
Sen. Angus King, I-Maine, said that statement was "not the way to communicate in this situation."
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