After months of rhetoric and negotiations on immigration with the parties barely any closer to each other, the reality is beginning to dawn that there may be no deal to be had.
Stakeholders working toward a deal on the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, likely including border security, are not giving up hope. But the White House’s and some Republicans’ insistence on adding new restrictions to legal immigration and the left’s opposition could be an insurmountable gap.
The White House on Thursday released its proposed framework for a deal on DACA, a program that protected young undocumented immigrants who came to the US as children that President Donald Trump is terminating as of March 5 but pushing lawmakers to replace.
The proposal did have some concessions to Democrats, including a path to citizenship for an estimated 1.8 million undocumented immigrants, but also included aggressive cuts to legal immigration and a push for enhanced enforcement powers, along with upwards of $25 billion for a wall and other border security. The framework also ends family migration beyond spouses and minor children and abolishes the diversity visa lottery.
The proposal was panned by the left and the right. Groups who support restricting immigration slammed it as “amnesty.” Democratic lawmakers and immigration advocates rejected it as a “massive, cruel and family-punishing overhaul of our current legal immigration system,” as New Jersey’s Sen. Bob Menendez phrased it.
The framework, plus Trump’s earlier rejection of an offer from Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer to authorize upwards of $20 billion for a wall and a vulgar rejection of a bipartisan proposal from the Senate “Gang of Six,” could mean that the only option left is a temporary extension of DACA with no future certainty. Some lawmakers have even started mentioning the latter option.
For now a permanent solution for DACA is “dead,” said Leon Fresco, an immigration attorney who led immigration negotiations for Schumer in 2013.
“Thursday pretty much lined it up as the final verdict,” Fresco said. “When Trump proposed something that in orthodoxy was not possible in the Democrat world and got criticized by the right, that was the end of the deal, because how can Trump agree to something more liberal now? … For both sides, the deal is completely unacceptable, so that’s what makes this very complicated.”
One longtime lobbyist on the issue, Randel Johnson, who recently left the US Chamber of Commerce to join the law firm Seyfarth Shaw as a partner, wasn’t quite ready to give up but did acknowledge that neither side may be able to come far enough toward the other to reach a deal.
“I think the danger is both sides begin posturing to their respective bases and both sides will walk away earning brownie points with their bases and get nothing done,” Johnson said.
Pessimism setting in
Advocacy groups who have been a constant presence on the left pushing for a deal have been disheartened by the lack of success even when they have accepted some concessions.
According to two sources familiar with a meeting of the groups last week, the mood among the pro-immigrant base – even before the White House proposal – was to be in a “fighting mode,” especially after the rejections of proposals they had thought were compromises.
The only acceptable option from here out, the consensus was, is a clean DACA-border security trade, and there was resolve to make clear to lawmakers and key players that groups will reject any deal that tries to include aggressive immigration measures in exchange for DACA.
Fresco said there was a “miscalculation” by those on the right that Democrats would swallow changes to the legal migration system in this deal because they had passed previously in broader, comprehensive negotiations.
But without all of the estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants being legalized, he said, it’s not on the table.
“There’s nothing about what the Republicans are seeking that can’t be obtained in a comprehensive deal,” Fresco said. “They can get everything they want, they just have to accept that everybody who’s here gets to stay. That’s the price of admission.”
Oklahoma’s GOP Sen. James Lankford said he would back the plan Trump set out last week.
Lankford told CNN he hopes the framework will put to bed concerns that the President could change his positions and policies at any moment – something he acknowledges has been a concern for lawmakers of both parties.
“Obviously, he just put it on paper. This wasn’t just a statement at a press conference offhand,” Lankford said. “If he’s putting it on paper, that means not only has he signed off on it, his team has signed off on it.”
A narrow path forward
One remaining option that looks increasingly likely is for Congress to pair a temporary extension of DACA with government funding, perhaps with some border security, and punt a longer-term deal into an indefinite future.
Sen. Lindsey Graham, a South Carolina Republican, told reporters January 8 that if a deal can’t be reached, lawmakers would find another way, according to Roll Call.
“We’ll probably extend the DREAM Act kids, the DACA kids, for a year,” Graham said.
Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn, a Texas Republican, told reporters last week that a deal will be “temporary for temporary, permanent for permanent” – meaning if Democrats can’t agree to massive border security, the DACA deal won’t be permanent, either.
“If you want an annual appropriation then I think you’ll get a one-year extension of the DACA status,” Cornyn said.
Frank Sharry, an advocate with America’s Voice Education Fund who has spent decades negotiating immigration in Washington, said he’s not giving up hope – yet. But he acknowledged that on immigration there’s a “sweet spot” that seemed pretty close to the “Gang of Six” bill the White House rejected.
“I’m not prepared to declare this dead at all, because we’re far from dead,” Sharry said. “When the White House realizes this is going nowhere and Republican leadership is going to be left holding the bag, they may say, ‘Let’s do something narrow and do it quick.’ And it’ll be border security and a DACA fix.”
CNN’s Ashley Killough contributed to this report.