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Trump Is Willing to Walk From Immigration Talks if Democrats Don’t Accept His Terms

2 Feb

By Laura Meckler, Kristina Peterson and Siobhan Hughes,  The Wall Street Journal

WHITE SULPHUR SPRINGS, W.Va.—President Donald Trump said Thursday that he is willing to walk away from immigration negotiations if Democrats won’t agree to his terms, and many involved in the debate said the chances of a deal appear to be fading.

“We’ll either have something that’s fair and equitable and good and secure, or we’re going to have nothing at all,” Mr. Trump told Republican lawmakers at a retreat at the Greenbrier resort here.

On Capitol Hill, there was no sign of a breakthrough in the talks a week before the Senate was scheduled to begin debate. Mr. Trump used his State of the Union speech this week to cast many unauthorized immigrants as dangerous criminals. And people in both parties predicted the other side would suffer the greater political consequences if there is no deal, a dynamic that makes compromise less likely.

Mr. Trump sparked the immigration debate in September, when he ended the Obama-era Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, which now protects and gives work permits to about 690,000 young undocumented immigrants brought to the U.S. as children. Without an agreement by March 5, nearly 1,000 people will begin losing those protections each day.

Mr. Trump’s plan calls for $25 billion toward a southwest border wall and other security measures, an end to the diversity visa lottery and limits on family-based migration in exchange for a path to citizenship for the approximately 1.8 million people who qualify under DACA rules.

He said on Thursday that his proposal was a balanced compromise, something that Democrats sharply dispute. Mr. Trump also preemptively tried to blame Democrats if the bipartisan talks fail. Democrats, he said, “talk a good game with DACA but they don’t produce.”

Immigrant-rights advocates say they would prefer Democrats walk away rather than accept his terms, saying reductions in legal immigration, in particular, are beyond the scope of the current debate.

“I am still hopeful, but I don’t see this Congress and this president coming to an agreement that prevents the deportation of the Dreamers,” said Rep. Luis Gutierrez (D., Ill.), an immigrant advocate. “The Dreamers themselves have said they do not want legal status if it comes at the expense of others who will suffer more as part of the bargain.”

On the other side, conservatives object to the pathway to citizenship the Trump plan would offer, saying it rewards illegal behavior. They say a legal status short of citizenship is the most they can swallow.

Another dynamic working against compromise was the outcome of the last showdown. Many Republicans feared they would be forced to give in on immigration in order to pass needed spending bills, if Democrats threatened a government shutdown. Democrats did force a shutdown last month, only to relent three days later, diminishing one of the few points of leverage the minority party has.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R., Ky.) confidently predicted Thursday there will be no more government shutdowns, saying Democrats have learned their lesson. “There’s no education in the second kick of a mule,” he said.

To be sure, some on Capitol Hill remain optimistic. A House Democratic aide said that pressure on Republicans will increase as the March 5 deadline approaches, and a Senate Democratic aide said that negotiations were continuing in earnest.

Democrats and some Republicans see a path forward with a less sweeping package combining Dreamer protections with border security funding. Sen. John Thune (R., S.D.), a member of the GOP leadership, said Thursday that it might not be possible to combine DACA with the “much bigger broader debate about immigration.”

“My own view is—and I’m only speaking for myself here—is if we can solve DACA and border security, that may be the best that we can hope for,” Mr. Thune told reporters at the GOP retreat.

A narrow agreement would mean jettisoning large planks of Mr. Trump’s plan. It’s unclear whether it could win support from either the GOP-controlled House or rally the 60 votes needed to clear legislation in the Senate, particularly if Mr. Trump is not on board. The president has repeatedly tacked back and forth between making hard-line demands and expressing openness to compromise.

Mr. McConnell has promised to bring immigration legislation to the Senate floor this month. Ahead of Mr. Trump’s remarks, the White House said Mr. Trump would call for the Senate to consider his immigration framework. In his actual remarks, though, he made no such demand and even suggested there might be room for negotiation.

A White House official said Mr. Trump does want the Senate to vote on his immigration framework.

Mr. McConnell reiterated his promise to debate immigration on a level playing field. “We’ll see who can get to 60 votes,” he said. Any immigration bill would need 60 votes to clear procedural hurdles in the Senate, where Republicans hold 51 seats.

Leon Fresco, an immigration attorney who led negotiations for Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D., N.Y.) during the last immigration debate, predicted that no immigration plan would pass.

“The way I see this playing out is that the Senate will not get to 60 votes on any package. The House will never take up a DACA bill,” he said. Instead, he predicted Congress will pass a one-year patch that gives DACA recipients a temporary legal status, along with some border-security funding.