President Donald Trump on Wednesday called on lawmakers to oppose a series of bipartisan efforts to address immigration and resolve the fate of young immigrants brought to the country illegally as children, demanding fealty to his hard-line approach and increasing the odds of political gridlock as the Senate debates the issue.
Senators in both parties are racing against a self-imposed, end-of-the-week deadline to write legislation that could win broad support by increasing border security while at the same time offering a path to citizenship for the young immigrants.
But in a morning statement, Trump urged senators to oppose any bill that did not also embrace the “four pillars” of his immigration approach, which includes a rewrite of the nation’s immigration laws that would close the country’s borders to many immigrants trying to come to the United States legally.
“I am asking all senators, in both parties, to support the Grassley bill and to oppose any legislation that fails to fulfill these four pillars,” Trump said in the statement.
The president’s decision to weigh in forcefully is likely to undermine the efforts of several bipartisan groups in the Senate and the House by calling into question whether any legislation they come up with might be dead on arrival once they make it to the president’s desk.
Instead, Trump said in the statement that lawmakers should support immigration legislation drafted by Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, to codify his own plan. The bill would provide a path to citizenship for 1.8 million young immigrants, end the visa lottery program, build a border wall and end what he calls “chain migration,” which is family-based immigration.
“The overwhelming majority of American voters support a plan that fulfills the framework’s four pillars, which move us towards the safe, modern, and lawful immigration system our people deserve,” Trump said.
He added that he would oppose a smaller, “Band-Aid” approach to immigration that some lawmakers have been discussing, which would protect the young immigrants for a few years in exchange for a small increase in border security spending — essentially kicking the issue down the road.
Sen. Chuck Schumer of New York, the Democratic leader, responded harshly to the president’s entreaty, noting with dismay that Trump last September ended the Obama-era program known as DACA, or Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, which protected the young immigrants from deportation and provided them work permits.
“The American people know what’s going on,” Schumer said on the Senate floor. “They know this president not only created the problem, but seems to be against every solution that might pass because it isn’t 100 percent of what he wants. If, at the end of the week, we are unable to find a bill that can pass — and I sincerely hope that’s not the case due to the good efforts of so many people on both sides of the aisle — the responsibility will fall entirely on the president’s shoulders and those in this body who went along with him.”
Republicans searching for a compromise on immigration were similarly perplexed.
“The president’s going to have a vote on his concept. I don’t think it will get 60 votes,” Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., said, adding, “The bottom line then is: What do you do next? You can do what we’ve done for the last 35 years — blame each other. Or you can actually start fixing the broken immigration system. If you came out of this with strong border security — the president getting his wall and the DREAM Act population being taken care of, most Americans would applaud,” referring to a previously failed bill to protect young immigrants.
Trump’s statement was a victory for conservatives in his administration, including Stephen Miller, his top domestic policy adviser, who have been pushing the president to demand an overhaul of the nation’s immigration rules in exchange for his support of a permanent solution for the young immigrants.
Several senior White House advisers told reporters Wednesday that Trump will not relent in his support for his hard-line immigration principles and said young immigrants should blame Democrats if legislation does not pass.
One senior adviser, who requested anonymity to discuss legislative strategy, said the president had made “dramatic concessions” by agreeing to a path to citizenship for 1.8 million young immigrants. Another made it clear that Trump will not compromise any further.
That position was underscored Wednesday by a Department of Homeland Security statement that slammed a competing immigration measure being offered by Sens. John McCain, R-Ariz., and Chris Coons, D-Del.
That bipartisan bill would call for more border security, but would not directly finance construction of a border wall that Trump has promised. The bill would offer a way for young immigrants to become legal; the DHS statement described it as a “mass legalization” measure.
“The McCain-Coons proposal would increase illegal immigration, surge chain migration, continue catch-and-release and give a pathway to citizenship to convicted alien felons,” the statement from the department said.
The top Republicans in both the House and Senate praised statements from the administration Wednesday, describing it as a boost for the approach that many of their more conservative members support.
“The president has made clear what principles must be addressed if we are going to make a law instead of merely making political points,” Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the Republican leader, said Wednesday morning.
Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., echoed that sentiment, saying that “the president did a very good job of putting a very sincere offer on the table. And that sincere offer that he put on the table should be the framework through which we come together to find a solution.”
While the president’s support of the Iowa Republican’s bill is not surprising, his vague promise not to support other bills is notable, as Trump told lawmakers last month that he would sign any immigration bill that Congress sends him. Republican leaders have said Congress should only pass legislation that Trump would sign, but how flexible the president would be was a key question for lawmakers.
The president’s answer to that question came as one of the bipartisan coalitions in the Senate closed in on a deal that the members believe would get 60 votes, setting up a clash between a large number of members from both parties and the Republican leadership, led by Trump.
Graham said there is “growing consensus” around a two-pronged approach, in which protections would be extended for roughly 1.8 million immigrants brought illegally as children, in exchange for the full $25 billion for the president’s proposed border wall. He said addressing other proposals has become “politically toxic,” ever since a White House immigration meeting where Trump referred to African nations as “shithole countries.”
Asked about Trump’s veto threat, Graham said, “Well, then, we won’t go very far. Then you’ll have three presidents who failed. You’ll have Obama, Bush and Trump.”
The White House position was announced as the Senate began debate on immigration, which allows senators to build legislation from a blank slate on the Senate floor.
Other proposals with bipartisan support on Capitol Hill take a narrower approach than Grassley’s, extending protections for young immigrants brought to the country illegally as children and bolstering border security. But those bills do not include the tough changes to immigration law that Trump backs — and most Democrats strongly oppose.
The statement is likely to make deliberations on Capitol Hill far harder. The president ended the Obama-era DACA program, but gave Congress six months to find a legislative alternative. That deadline is now three weeks away.
The Grassley bill includes several measures to increase border security, including increasing the use of radar and tower-based surveillance, sensors and drones mostly along the Southwest border and increasing the number of border patrol agents. The National Guard would also be used to help constructs border fencing and operate some of the surveillance equipment.