President Donald Trump will be forced to confront the most confounding policy debate before the midterm elections in the coming weeks. And already, the odds are increasing that the outcome will push the Republican party into another bitter internal war—this time over the soon-to-be-expired Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program.
For months, Trump has made it clear that any compromise with Democrats must come with funding for a physical border wall along the southern border—a demand that Democrats continue to insist is a non-starter to any negotiations. As a stalemate has persisted, however, the president and his aides have begun to send a variety of mixed signals about what specific policy demands they will make in exchange for signing off on a deal that would grant legal protections to so-called DREAMers—the undocumented immigrants brought to the U.S. illegally as children.
Aides on Capitol Hill now say that the administration’s emphasis appears to be more on ending so-called chain migration—the ability of immigrants to come to the U.S. because they are sponsored by lawful permanent residents.
Two congressional sources told The Daily Beast that members of the White House legislative affairs staff, including liaison Paul Teller, have mentioned chain migration at each of their meetings with lawmakers, sending a signal to Congress that the White House will insist on it being part of any final compromise with Democrats. As for the wall, a conservative House GOP aide privy to ongoing negotiations told The Daily Beast that “members aren’t willing to die on a hill for [it].”
“Conservatives want the [DACA] issue to go away,” the aide added, “with the caveat that we get border security, ending chain migration, and conservative immigration reforms in return for [DACA protections].”
Though Trump continues to publicly proclaim the need for a southern border wall, the White House has made chain migration a pillar of its immigration rhetoric for the last month. It posted a series of infographics on its website in December calling for reforms to immigration rules that allow families to unite in the U.S., and blasted out talking points to conservative media tying chain migration to attempted terrorist attacks on U.S. soil.
“Congress Must End Chain Migration,” White House official Kelly Sadler wrote in a Friday blast email obtained by The Daily Beast. “The President has repeatedly made clear that Congress must act to end Chain Migration.”
The email did not explicitly mention a border wall, aside from referencing a Dec. 29 tweet from the president in which he insisted that it be included in any compromise. In a statement to The Daily Beast, White House Deputy Press Secretary Hogan Gidley reiterated that the border wall “must” be part of any deal.
“President Trump has been clear he wants responsible immigration reform in conjunction with any DACA legislation that must include securing the border with a wall, ensuring interior enforcement, eliminating the visa lottery program and ending chain migration,” Gidley said.
But there are signs that the president is, indeed, re-calibrating his approach to a conundrum he created himself by rescinding the program last year. Trump tweeted on Tuesday that DACA activists would start “falling in love” with both him and Republicans—a missive interpreted as a sign he is predisposed toward getting a deal done. A source close to Trump suggested that the administration should seek even superficial policy measures that would nonetheless sate the president’s base, even if it means coming up a bit short on a major campaign promise.
“The wall is a symbol to both the people who love the president and the people who hate the president and whichever side wins the fight on building the wall or not will go into the 2018 midterms with the most energized base,” the source said, adding that it could even stop short of covering the entire southern border, as long as there is tangible progress to point to. “You could start building the physical wall right away even if, in five years when it’s finished, there are parts of the border that don’t have a physical wall.”
Whether Trump can sell a semi-built wall as a campaign-promise fulfilled will be a major test of his political chops as Republicans attempt to retain their majorities in the House and Senate after the midterm elections later this year. Whether he can force through a ban on chain-migration as part of the final deal will be a monumental hurdle to clear for his legislative affairs team.
In the House of Representatives, there are already warring factions, with one camp opposed to a border wall and another against any deal at all that codifies DACA. There’s also a growing sense of confusion and frustration over, what appears to be, a continuous shift in demands emanating from the administration.
“The White House just rolls over and plays dead, says we’ll just fight on [the border wall] next time,” the conservative House aide added. “Congress doesn’t know if they’re for real.”
In the Senate, the politics are less tricky. Any DACA deal will need 60 votes to pass through that chamber. And Senate Democratic aides say that all their members are on board with passing the DREAM Act and border security funding, but they have little to no appetite for a border wall—let alone a ban on chain migration—as a trade off.
Democratic leaders punted on the issue in the last government funding battle in December, when rank-and-file members failed to gin up enough support to force a government shutdown in order to force action on DACA before Christmas. The funding bill—which keeps the government’s lights on through Jan. 19—passed with 66 votes in the Senate, with most Democrats voting against it.
Beyond that, there have been new signals from the administration that they are ready to find a resolution. During the final three weeks before the holidays, a bipartisan group of senators met every day they were in Washington to discuss a deal. And toward the middle of December, White House Chief of Staff John Kelly attended. His presence was interpreted as a positive sign for the administration’s seriousness in forging a compromise. So too was the absence of another Trump official. Immigration hardliner Stephen Miller, who has been one of the foremost champions of ending chain migration, was not in attendance, an aide confirmed.
—Additional reporting by Asawin Suebsaeng