Donald Trump has sought to strike a harmonious note on immigration reform, suggesting a “bill of love” to protect young undocumented immigrants in the spirit of bipartisanship, while standing by hardline demands Democrats have dismissed as dealbreakers.
“It should be a bill of love,” Mr Trump said, but “it also has to be a bill where we’re able to secure our border. Drugs are pouring into our country at a record pace. A lot of people coming in that we can’t have”.
That split message, part conciliatory and part unyielding, underscored the distance separating the president and Democrats as they seek a resolution on immigration issues that resonate deeply with their respective bases.
Of paramount importance to Democrats is the renewal of a programme known as Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, that offered a reprieve from deportation and work permits to young unauthorised immigrants until Mr Trump let it lapse. Hundreds of thousands of immigrants who were brought to the country as children, often dubbed “Dreamers,” had availed themselves of the lapsed initiative.
“Lives are hanging in the balance,” Democrat Senator Dick Durbin, of Illinois, said during a meeting with Mr Trump and legislative leaders.
The president has said he is committed to a DACA fix, telling members of Congress that “We have something in common — we’d like to see this get done,” and echoing a Democratic talking point about the wide-ranging effects of rescinding the program by noting that “You’re talking about 800,000 people”. He said he would “take the heat” for a comprehensive immigration measure.
But he has sought to use the program as a bargaining chip to win stringent measures limiting both legal and illegal immigration, drawing firm resistance from Democrats who are determined not to yield.
For months, Mr Trump has tied DACA’s fate to the promised border wall with with Mexico that was a centrepiece of his presidential campaign. He has so far failed to secure funding for the project, last week asking Congress for some $18 billion toward the wall.
“I’d love not to build the wall, but you need the wall,” he said, adding that “If you don’t have the wall, you can’t have security”.
He has recently expanded his list of demands to include an end to a visa lottery system and “chain migration,” a term advocates of restricted immigration — including the White House — use to describe immigrants eventually bringing their family members to America under the country’s family-reunification-oriented immigration laws.
“Those three things are paramount. These are measures that will make our communities safer and more prosperous,” Mr Trump said.
After Mr Trump met with members of Congress, the White House said in a statement that they “reached an agreement to negotiate legislation” that would encompass DACA, border security, “chain migration” and the diversity visa lottery.
A bill that would tie in all of those issues would be politically precarious. Democrats have pushed for what they call a “clean” DACA compromise — one that sustains the programme without including the tougher security measures, like the border wall, the President as sought. After Sen Dianne Feinstein of California pressed him to commit to that two-step process, the President initially seemed to agree.
“We’re going to come out with DACA and then we can start immediately on phase two, which would be comprehensive immigration reform,” he said.
But the President later said a “clean” bill would need to also fortify border security, adding that “To me, a clean bill is a bill of DACA, we take care of them, and we also take care of security”.