Senators, White House lay groundwork for Dreamers deal
Top senators and White House officials are laying the groundwork for a major immigration deal in January to resolve the fate of young undocumented immigrants whose legal protections were put in limbo by President Donald Trump.
At a Tuesday afternoon meeting with nearly a dozen senators deeply involved in immigration policy, White House chief of staff John Kelly pledged that the administration will soon present a list of border security and other policy changes it wants as part of a broader deal on so-called Dreamers, according to people who attended the meeting. The plan could come in a matter of days, senators said.
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About a half-dozen senators have been negotiating a bipartisan package prompted by Trump’s decision to kill the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, an Obama-era executive action that granted work permits to nearly 800,000 undocumented immigrants who came here as minors. Yet the senators could not fully flesh out a deal before they knew what Trump was willing to sign.
“We couldn’t finish this product, this bill, until we knew where the administration was,” Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.), who has been negotiating a DACA compromise for weeks, said in an interview after the meeting with Kelly. “And that’s why this meeting was so important.”
Congressional Republicans and the White House have long said any DACA deal would need to be paired with security and other enforcement measures. Democrats say that’s fine as long as the provisions weren’t too onerous. But the border security question has been a sticking point for weeks, as senators swapped proposals without cutting a deal, so far.
And while liberal Democrats and grass-roots activists are pressuring Congress to enact permanent legal protections for Dreamers this year, both Democrats and Republicans at the meeting with Kelly said there was a consensus that legislation wouldn’t pass before lawmakers leave Washington. It was one of the clearest sign yet that a Dreamers agreement won’t, to the chagrin of liberals, come before 2018.
“Our belief is that if this matter is not resolved this week — and it’s not likely to be resolved — that come the omnibus and the caps, that we have another chance to finally come up with a bipartisan package of things to include” by mid-January, said Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), who also attended the meeting. “The closer we get [to the March deadline], the more nervous I get, not to mention the way these young people feel. I’m sorry that it’s taken this long.”
Flake said he believes he has a commitment from Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) to hold a cloture vote on the floor on an immigration deal by mid-January, before the next likely deadline to fund the government, Jan. 19.
A spokesman for McConnell did not immediately return a request for comment. But the majority leader said during a Fox News interview that he has talked about the immigration issue with his counterpart, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer of New York.
“No, we’ll not be doing DACA … this week,” McConnell said. “That’s a matter to be discussed next year. The president has given us until March to address that issue. We have plenty of time to do it.”
At the Tuesday meeting, Kelly and other administration officials went into detail about how much of the southern border is currently fenced and how much more the White House would want in exchange for a DACA deal, according to people who attended.
Senators also pressed the White House on other immigration demands, such as an overhaul of the nation’s asylum system or a change in policy toward unaccompanied minors who are apprehended at the southern border, and whether they needed to be included in the current DACA talks.
“Which of those policy items, or immigration law changes, do we need to make as part of this and what can wait for something else?” Flake said, summing up the questions from senators. “There’s a lot of nice things we need to do as part of broader comprehensive reform, but we need to have a bill in January and we need to know what has to be in it and what the administration will support.”
The bipartisan group of senators — Flake and Durbin, Michael Bennet (D-Colo.), James Lankford (R-Okla.), Thom Tillis (R-N.C.), Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) and Cory Gardner (R-Colo.) — has discussed a legalization plan that would marry the DREAM Act, drafted by Durbin and Graham, with a more conservative proposal for Dreamers written by Tillis and Lankford, Flake said.
Those seven senators attended Tuesday’s meeting with Kelly, as did Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn (R-Texas), and Republican Sens. Tom Cotton of Arkansas and David Perdue of Georgia.
“I think what we’re trying to do is to get some clarity from the administration on what they require by way of border security and other enforcement measures,” Cornyn said as he left the meeting. “We got a promise to provide it to us and hopefully we’ll get that in short order. Maybe even this week.”