WASHINGTON — Democrats face a political challenge ahead if they cut a deal to protect “Dreamers” this month: explaining how they gave President Donald Trump the “wall” their party faithful loathe.
Republicans and Democrats agree that increased border security — and something the president can say fills his wall requirement — is likely to be a part of any agreement to stop the deportation of more than 800,000 recipients of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals Program.
Democrats counter that additional physical barriers along the border with Mexico wouldn’t necessarily be the same as the massive, endless wall Trump vowed to build. But they’re up against a base that doesn’t want to give Trump a single victory, much less one on a wall they say is patently racist and a waste of money.
So let the euphemism battle begin.
“A wall is more an ego trip for the president than an effective use of resources,” Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., told McClatchy.
“(Trump) can call it anything he wants,” Blumenthal added, but he said Democrats would support only smarter border security, such as improved surveillance in the form of drones and border personnel.
U.S. Rep. Henry Cuellar, D-Laredo, was seated before the president Tuesday as the sole representative from the Rio Grande Valley during the nearly hour-long meeting.
With a government shutdown on the horizon, Cuellar joined members of Congress, U.S. House Appropriations Committee members and the Homeland Security Subcommittee to work with Trump on a replacement program.
“I am confident that moving forward, the president will be more open to working with us proactively at finding solutions that will not require wasting billions of taxpayer dollars on a giant concrete wall on the southern border,” the congressman said. “My constituents, and especially landowners in my district, have expressed great concern over the border wall plans. As a member of Congress who represents the border, and who actually lives on the border, I understand the needs and concerns better than those making decisions about border security without ever having visited the area.”
The idea of a long-term solution and a possible comprehensive immigration reform plan, which Republicans plan on introducing in some form Wednesday, was also discussed, with Trump seemingly acknowledging that a comprehensive solution was needed.
On the heels of the meeting, Cuellar said more discussions are scheduled in which immigration reform will be reviewed.
“… My colleagues and I will be meeting to come up with a two-phase plan that includes a solution for DACA and, at a later date, comprehensive immigration reform,” Cuellar said in a prepared statement. “As we go forward, I will continue to work in a bipartisan manner in Congress to resolve issues pertaining to border security and immigration, while working to our country’s Dreamers.”
Sen. Dick Durbin, D- Ill. told Trump he would find Democratic support on some elements of border security.
Rep. Steny Hoyer, D-Md., suggested after the meeting that Trump was flexible. He said Democrats support border security, “which means many things to many people and maybe different things to different people.”
Hoyer said Trump himself mentioned fences and technology.
“It was clear in the meeting that ‘wall’ did not mean a structure,” said Hoyer, the second-ranking House Democrat. “The president uses ‘wall’ for border security … I think he thinks they’re interchangeable.”
And Democrats signaled they could accept some sort of fencing. “If you’re talking about replacing that fencing and strengthening it, maybe that’s possible,” said Sen. Bob Menendez, D-N.J.
Activists on Capitol Hill have spent months pressuring lawmakers not to accept a deal that’s bad for immigrants.
“I’ve never seen the activists push so hard against a deal,” said Eddie Vale, a Democratic activist coordinating immigrants’ rights efforts on Capitol Hill. “The Dreamers are in all the meetings … The pressure is coming for the Democrats from the Dreamers to not cut a bad deal.”
But immigrants’ rights activists concede any eventual DACA agreement will need Trump’s support to make it palatable to Republicans. And Republicans control both the Senate and House.
“If we don’t fight like hell on this, some people in our base are going to say, ‘Why bother?’” said Frank Sharry, executive director of America’s Voice, a leading pro-immigration advocacy group.
At the same time, Sharry said, “We’re operating in a context that’s very challenging. President Donald Trump is going to have to bless a deal, (and) that is a formidable challenge.”
The administration also wants enhanced enforcement measures, including a boost in the number of border agents and an end to family-based or “chain” migration and the diversity visa lottery system. Democrats say they see room to negotiate on a deal that’s primarily border security infrastructure, combined with a pathway to legal status for DACA recipients.
Trump has been anything but clear on what he’ll accept, even on his signature wall.
“Sitting next to that president and listening him explain the wall, it was explained in so many different ways … as to how long is was, what it was like, how tall it was, whether it was really a fence,” Durbin said after the meeting Tuesday.
Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt. suggested an “easy way out” of the stalemate. Trump, he said, promised repeatedly on the campaign trail that Mexico would pay for the wall.
“I know President Trump would never lie about something,” Leahy said sarcastically. “So let’s see how much money they send up and then we can decide what kind of a wall.”
Mexican officials have said they do not intend to pay for a wall.
Reporting by Staff Writer Lorenzo Zazueta-Castro and the McClatchy Washington Bureau.