By Maya Rhodan
January 16, 2018

The federal government is hurtling toward a shutdown in part due to floundering negotiations over the future of a group of young immigrants who were brought to the U.S. illegally as children.

With a Jan. 19 government funding deadline rapidly approaching, attempts to pass a longer extension to avoid a shutdown have been caught up in a fight over the future of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, program and President Donald Trump’s comments on it.

That leaves two scenarios most likely: a government shutdown by this weekend, or another short-term stopgap measure to keep the government open while the fight continues. A bipartisan group of lawmakers from the House and Senate are working on a stopgap proposal.

Over the long weekend, Trump attempted to shift blame on the impasse to Democrats, who are in the minority in both chambers of Congress, but whose votes are needed on any deal. On Sunday, Trump said the DACA program was “probably dead” because of Democratic lawmakers, criticizing Sen. Dick Durbin for reports that the president called Haiti and other African nations “shithole countries” in a bipartisan meeting. (The president denies using that particular word.)

But tweets from Trump and other recent statements have included some proposals that have, so far, only made negotiations more difficult.

Trump’s comments could make a difference among members of his own party, who will be concerned about voting for a bill that he might veto. Sen. Lindsey Graham has said getting the president on board will be crucial to getting any deal through the majority-Republican Congress.

What the White House wants on DACA

The President and Congress seemed to reach a bipartisan accord after a White House meeting last week. Both sides appeared to have agreed on some terms that made the path forward clearer. They were going to protect DACA recipients from deportation while providing funding for Trump’s long-promised border wall, changing the approach to family migration, and reforming the diversity visa lottery program. The group of lawmakers also seemed to agree to address broader immigration in a separate bill.

But late last week, those hopes were all but thrown away after the President rebuffed a bipartisan plan that would have addressed those four main issues. At that meeting, the President reportedly asked why the U.S. was opening its doors to people from “shithole” countries — meaning Haiti and African nations — rather than people from countries like Norway.

The White House has also praised a conservative plan that many Democrats see as a non-starter. Republican Reps. Bob Goodlatte of Virginia, Raul Labrador of Idaho, Martha McSally of Arizona and Michael McCaul of Texas introduced a bill that would authorize construction of the border wall, boost the number of border officers, cut-off family migration, make E-verify mandatory and block funding to sanctuary cities. The bill would give DACA recipients a three-year renewable legal status, but no pathway to citizenship.

The President said he was “grateful” for the bill and in a statement, Secretary of Homeland Security Kirstjen Nielsen said it “reflects many of the policy principles and priorities identified by DHS’s frontline personnel which the Administration has advocated for this past year.” The bill aligns with many of the White House immigration principles that were outlined in an earlier memo, but is far from what Democrats are willing to accept when it comes to the so-called Dreamers.

Which ideas Democrats won’t accept

Democrats are willing to agree to some border security measures in exchange for Dreamer protections, but, for most, the Goodlatte bill goes too far. And while their seemed to be some agreement on the four principles that the White House wanted addressed in the DACA bill, many on the left want issues like the diversity visa program and the ability of immigrants to benefit from a family member’s legal status off the negotiating table, too.

Congressional Hispanic Caucus Chair Michelle Lujan Grisham has pushed back on the idea that family reunification — what the President calls “chain migration” – should be included in any Dreamer bill.

“There seems to be much broader consensus that there’s a variety of places to go on border security that would be fairly amenable to both parties,” Lujan Grisham told reporters last week. “When you start to deal with immigration reform issues, it gets a lot tougher which is why I’m going to keep pushing — let’s do the thing that makes sense, where there’s broad agreement.”

While the president’s “shithole” comments drew the ire of a broad swath of lawmakers, they garnered a particularly strong response from the Congressional Black Caucus, because the policy at the center of the remark — the Diversity Visa Lottery program — has benefitted migrants from Africa and other countries in the African diaspora.

“Now that his true motivations are clear, the Congressional Black Caucus calls on all Members of Congress, including those negotiating on the immigration deal, to reject any and all efforts to end the Diversity Visa Program,” CBC Chair Cedric Richmond said in a statement.

Meantime, some Republicans have dismissed any proposals that don’t adequately deal with issues they say drive illegal immigration, such as family migration and border security.

How this could lead to a government shutdown

Timing has always been an issue, but this week’s spending deadline makes it all the more real. When the Administration announced that DACA would be winded down, the President gave Congress six months to come up with a legislative fix. But immigration is not a subject the Congress handles easily — see the 2013 comprehensive immigration reform package for proof — and Democratic leaders have suggested that the only way something will make it to Trump’s desk is if it is attached to a must-pass bill, like a spending bill.

The divide between the White House and Congress on this issue that was exposed after the President’s dismissal of a bipartisan deal dims any chances of a spending bill with DACA language passing this week. Some Republicans believe that they have more time to work out a deal, citing the March 5 end of the program, though immigration advocates note that every day until then more Dreamers lose protection from deportation as their paperwork expires.

President Trump has already begun to suggest that Democrats will be at fault if the government shuts down, but historically no one – and especially not the President, comes out unscathed when the federal government fails to avert a shutdown.

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