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Dreamers for a wall? Examining the possibilities for compromise in the immigration debate

Congress’ debates over funding the government for the coming year are going to get wrapped up in immigration politics.

At a meeting with Republican and Democratic leaders on Tuesday, President Trump said he’d sign any DACA bill — including a “clean” one — and said he’d take the heat from his base if need be.
REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst

From the day he announced his candidacy for president, Donald Trump has talked constantly about his idea to build a brand-new, big, beautiful wall running the length of the 2,000-mile U.S. border with Mexico.

The wall has been an essential element of the Trump platform, the most raucous applause line at his rallies, and a symbol of his brand of right-wing nationalism that views illegal immigration as an existential threat to the U.S.

But nearly a year after Trump declared at his inauguration that he would “bring back our borders,” all there is to show for the wall are prototypes picking up dust in the California desert — and unmet demands from the White House for Congress to pony up $18 billion to make those prototypes into reality.

There’s also some hard feelings from the president’s base of supporters, for whom the border wall was a major part of Trump’s appeal. After seeing Republicans in power spend a year going after sweeping health care and tax legislation, they are anxious to see the wall move forward.

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There could be an opportunity this month, as Congress’ debates over funding the government for the coming year get wrapped up in immigration politics. Democrats are pushing for a spending bill that includes a long-term solution permitting undocumented youth known as Dreamers to remain in the country, after the White House last year terminated the Barack Obama-era program — Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA — providing them legal status.

Trump and other top Republicans are insisting that if Democrats want Dreamers to stay, they will need to approve a bill that funds construction of the wall. Many Democrats are open to increased funding for border security, but to most of them, appropriating a cent — much less $18 billion — for a big border wall is a non-starter.

Both sides believe they have leverage, with a government funding deadline approaching on January 19 — and Trump’s most important single campaign promise hangs in the balance.

Wall hits a wall

Trump’s biggest moves on immigration during the first year of his presidency were made possible by the power of his pen: the administration was quick to roll out executive orders limiting migration from a group of Muslim-majority countries, and curtailing refugee resettlement. The White House also terminated programs that gave certain nationals, such as those of Haiti and El Salvador, protected status in the U.S.

The president did sign an executive order for the wall — in January, he mandated the “immediate construction of a physical wall” — but it has not been fulfilled. Congress needs to appropriate money for the project, and though Speaker Paul Ryan said lawmakers would do it, it hasn’t happened, partly due to Democrats’ determination to block the wall.

Trump’s supporters have been left waiting, and that wait has made some of them question the White House’s commitment to getting the wall built, as well as the president’s commitment to having the government of Mexico pay for the cost of its construction, as he repeatedly promised.

According to transcripts of the president’s call with Mexican president Enrique Peña Nieto, which took place a few days after the inauguration and were made public later in the year, Trump conceded that Mexico did not need to pay for the wall, and that he wanted it to simply appear as if the two leaders were working it out. “Believe it or not,” he told his counterpart, “this is the least important thing that we are talking about, but politically this might be the most important [to] talk about.”

In September, as Trump’s talk of a DACA deal after a meeting with top Democratic congressional leaders prompted him to say the wall will “come later,” the president’s core supporters were not pleased, and some believed he had “gone soft” on his wall promise.

Heading into 2018, the White House has touted the wall, and border security in general, as a top priority. Some in the White House feel that delivering on the wall promise soon will be critical to the president’s legacy, and to his chances for re-election 2020.

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Stopping ‘another DACA’

At a retreat with Republican leadership at Camp David in January, Trump’s message was simple: “We want the wall.” At a meeting with Republican and Democratic leaders on Tuesday, however, Trump said he’d sign any DACA bill — including a “clean” one — and said he’d take the heat from his base if need be. But on Wednesday, he reverted to his insistence that any bill that addresses the status of Dreamers must include funding for construction of an actual wall.

In its first budget, the White House estimated the wall itself would cost some $18 billion, which would include building 316 miles of brand-new wall, and bolstering 407 miles of existing wall. (If completed, there would be over 2,000 miles of some kind of wall on the U.S.-Mexico border, which totals 6,400 miles.)

U.S. Customs and Border Patrol erected eight prototypes for the wall near San Diego in October, and the president will reportedly tour them soon, possibly after his upcoming State of the Union address.

Minnesota’s three congressional Republicans are not gung-ho backers of the wall, but agreed to varying degrees that heightened border security is a necessary element of any immigration deal.

Second District GOP Rep. Jason Lewis said that if Congress does not appropriate funds for border security — including a physical wall — it will not address the root problem of illegal immigration, which led to DACA’s creation in the first place.

“We don’t want another DACA in five years,” he said. “Border security is the priority… there needs to be appropriation for a physical structure. Does that mean the entire border? I’m going to leave that to the experts. But there has to be some funding mechanism for that.”

Third District GOP Rep. Erik Paulsen, who has called for a comprehensive DACA solution, said in a statement that there is broad support for that along with boosting border security. But he did not mention the need for a border wall when asked about it.

“Providing resources to protect our border is important to our national security, and we need to ensure children who came to the United States through no fault of their own have the opportunity to remain productive contributors to our community,” he said.

Sixth District Rep. Tom Emmer did not explicitly call for a wall, as Lewis did, but he did say that “You’ve got to protect your borders, and there’s a system of laws in place that you have to honor… as long as [congressional leaders] are working within that construct, I’m interested in whatever they propose.”

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The three Republicans were willing to accept a DACA solution in exchange for funding for border security and other demands, but both Lewis and Emmer cast doubt on a deal that would provide citizenship to the 800,000 Dreamers.

House Republicans introduced legislation on Wednesday that would provide DACA recipients a path to citizenship, but advances some GOP priorities on immigration — going after so-called sanctuary jurisdictions, for example — that Democrats are unlikely to accept.

A ‘waste of money’

Democrats are generally open to more border security, but not the wall, which they argue is a waste of money. They might back initiatives to provide more funding to aerial surveillance of border areas, for example, which the Department of Homeland Security believes could be more efficient and effective than a wall in some places. (The New York Times has reported that initiatives like these may be cut or denied in order to pay for a physical wall.)

The wall is more or less a deal breaker for Democrats, as are other things that Republicans are proposing in exchange for a DACA solution, like reducing overall levels of legal immigration, and ending a visa lottery program.

Fifth District DFL Rep. Keith Ellison said that what Republicans are offering is hardly a compromise. “What they’re trying to say is, we’re going to rip nearly 800,000 people out of the only country they’ve ever known, unless you give us stuff,” he told MinnPost. “I’m not voting for it.”

Ellison said that Trump should stick with the “clean” DACA promise he laid out at the White House meeting on Tuesday — remarks that the president’s allies immediately tried to walk back, and that were later scrubbed from the official White House record of the meeting. (“So they’re trying to say that he didn’t mean what he actually did say?” Ellison asked.)

Minnesota’s U.S. senators, Amy Klobuchar and Tina Smith, both called on Congress to address DACA; Smith said Congress should pass the DREAM Act, which failed to pass the Senate in 2010, as part of a budget deal. Klobuchar called for a bipartisan agreement and maintained that “sitting back and doing nothing on this is not an option.”

First District DFL Rep. Tim Walz said the Dreamers are Americans in every way save for their legal status. Trump, Walz says, “just needs to say he built a wall… say you built a wall, but you’re not going to get money for it out of us. You just gave a tax giveaway, now I’m going to put $18 billion into something I know is not going to work, because he needs to say it?”

“It’s a waste of money,” he continued, “and you’re holding these DACA recipients in limbo for it.”

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Republicans, like Lewis, counter that Democrats must compromise, and abandon what he called their “our way or the highway” approach. “There are a lot of people in the [Republican] conference that don’t want any DACA deal,” he said. “We are willing to compromise and work with the other side… You have to compromise with us.”

The Democratic side sees all this as a problem of the Republicans’ own making, after the Trump administration moved to terminate DACA in September — setting up a March expiration date for legal status for the majority of Dreamers.

Walz sees a president that is boxed in, desperate to make good on a central campaign promise.

“He’s not operating from a factual, or a security, or a what’s best for DACA recipients standpoint,” he said. “He’s operating from, I have to keep this pledge because of my supporters… What he does is a disservice, telling them that this wall he’s going to build is going to make some kind of difference.”

“If you put two toothpicks in the desert and called it a wall, that might be all he needs.”