President Donald Trump just blinked on the government shutdown. But his standoff with congressional Democrats doesn’t appear to be headed to a resolution anytime soon.
On Saturday, in remarks billed as a “major announcement” on the border and the shutdown, Trump proposed a deal to Democrats. He continues to insist that any bill to reopen the government include billions of dollars for a physical barrier on the US-Mexico border — a “wall” — but is now open to such a bill including other immigration provisions as well.
Most notably, he’s open to extending existing protections for the 700,000 or so immigrants currently protected by the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program and the hundreds of thousands of immigrants who currently have legal status under Temporary Protected Status. The Trump administration has moved to sunset DACA, and to end protections for most of the immigrants covered under TPS. Both of those plans are currently held up in litigation.
Democrats aren’t particularly interested in what Trump’s proposing. “Democrats were not consulted on this and have rejected similar overtures previously,” a Democratic aide told Vox. “It’s clearly a non-serious product of negotiations amongst White House staff to try to clean up messes the president created in the first place. POTUS is holding more people hostage for his wall.”
After weeks of all-or-nothing intransigence, Trump’s announcement Saturday indicates that the White House realizes they’re losing the shutdown in the eyes of most Americans, and are willing to compromise to reopen the government. But Democrats also know the White House is losing the shutdown, and the compromise now on offer is something they are unlikely to take.
What Trump’s offering: $5.7 billion for the wall in exchange for extensions of existing protections for some immigrants
Trump’s pitching this as a compromise: He wants the wall, Democrats want to help DACA and TPS recipients. But the deal isn’t the result of conversations with Democrats. It’s reportedly the result of discussions that Vice President Mike Pence and presidential son-in-law Jared Kushner have had with congressional Republicans (most notably Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC)).
And it shows. What Trump’s offering — temporary extensions of existing protections for both groups of immigrants — isn’t something that Democrats have been wildly enthusiastic about in the past. Furthermore, with Trump’s efforts to strip existing protections held up in court, it’s essentially a short extension of the status quo.
DACA recipients are currently being allowed to extend their protections for two years, just as they could under the Obama administration, while the administration fights in court to end the program. (People who don’t already have protections are no longer allowed to apply.) Without knowing when the Supreme Court will rule — or how the Trump administration will proceed if the Supreme Court agrees they can end DACA, since their original plan (issuing no renewals for expirations after March 2018) is obviously moot — it’s hard to say for sure that a three-year one-time extension will protect DACA recipients for longer than waiting for the Supreme Court.
Here’s what he offered Saturday:
- $5.7 billion in funding for a physical barrier on the US-Mexico border. Trump’s not budging on this. The White House has already “conceded” that the barrier will be made of steel poles — which is what experts and border agents wanted anyway — rather than solid concrete. Per a letter sent earlier this month, the administration could build 243 miles of barriers with the $5.7 billion it’s requesting, most of which would be built in the Rio Grande Valley.’
- Three years of temporary protections for DACA recipients. On DACA, Trump is embracing a version of Graham’s BRIDGE Act, which would extend DACA recipients’ existing deportation protections and work permits for three more years. (The original BRIDGE Act applied also to immigrants who were eligible for DACA but not currently protected.) In theory, Congress would use that time to work out a permanent solution for DREAMers; but the last time the White House tried that, by giving Congress six months to address DACA before sunsetting it entirely, the gambit did not succeed. During that debate in late 2017 and early 2018, many Republicans gravitated toward bills that would offer DREAMers access to permanent legal status and ultimately to citizenship — a more moderate approach than what Trump is offering now.
- A three-year extension of protections for TPS holders. Trump is also offering to extend ( for three years as well) the legal protections that hundreds of thousands of immigrants have under the Temporary Protected Status program — which is supposed to allow people to stay in the US while their countries recover from war or natural disasters, but which, over the years, has allowed many people to stay and put down roots in the US. TPS, unlike DACA, grants official legal status, but it doesn’t offer any way to apply for a green card or citizenship. Trump’s efforts to end TPS for most countries are held up in a different court fight — so this proposal, like the DACA proposal, would essentially be a legislative extension of the current judicially-imposed status quo.
- $800 million to improve care for children and families at the border — with millions more for enforcement. The rest of Trump’s proposal is a modified version of what the White House originally floated to Democrats in negotiations two weeks ago, codified in a letter sent by the Office of Management and Budget. Those demands include $800 million to deal with the actually-urgent humanitarian crisis at the US/Mexico border — the fact that unprecedented numbers of children and families are coming to the US (often to seek asylum) and border agents aren’t equipped to deal with them. Trump’s also demanding 2,750 more border agents and other law enforcement officials; millions of dollars in screening technology to detect drugs at ports of entry; and the hiring of 75 new immigration judges to address the immigration-court backlog, which is currently the biggest barrier to deporting people quickly (and which the current shutdown has exacerbated).
- Modest changes to asylum for Central American children and teenagers. The Trump administration is floating allowing Central American children and teenagers to apply for asylum in their home countries — a modification of an Obama-administration program Trump ended in 2017. In return, they want to change current law to eliminate automatic court hearings for children and teens who come to the US from Central America and other countries — making it much easier to summarily deport them.
Trump is in a weakening position on the shutdown — and on immigration
Trump could have proposed this deal at any time since before the government shut down; Graham has been pushing it for weeks. But as recently as Wednesday, Trump was telling reporters that he was waiting for Democrats to come back to the table to negotiate. And as recently as last week, Vice President Mike Pence told reporters that the president was firmly opposed, in particular, to any wall deal that addressed the DACA issue.
On both of those questions — whether to offer Democrats a compromise to end the shutdown, and whether that compromise could include some protection for DACA recipients — the White House’s political calculus has changed.
Over the last week or so, the real-life consequences of the shutdown for the 800,000 federal employees currently going without pay have started becoming apparent. Affected workers missed their first paycheck on Friday, January 11; if nothing changes, they’re set to miss another paycheck on Friday, January 25. (The president has signed a bill to give back pay to workers, but only after the shutdown ends.) And with the Senate out of session for the next week (though they could be called back for votes on 24 hours’ notice), it looks like that second missed paycheck is a foregone conclusion.
Reports from inside the White House indicate that Trump advisers have gotten increasingly anxious to end the shutdown. One administration official told the Wall Street Journal’s Natalie Andrews and Michael C. Bender on Wednesday that advisers have warned Trump “this isn’t just a messaging war” and that he’s “playing with live ammunition” — with the implication that the president is taking the blame for the shutdown’s real-life casualties.
The White House’s sudden willingness to include DACA in shutdown talks, meanwhile, might stem from something that happened Friday — or rather, didn’t happen.
Observers on all sides have assumed that the Supreme Court was going to take up the lawsuit against Trump’s efforts to end DACA this term, and would rule (probably in the Trump administration’s favor) in June. But as of yesterday — the court’s traditional deadline for adopting cases for the current term — the Supreme Court hadn’t officially agreed to hear the DACA case.
It’s possible that the court will announce in the coming days that it’s hearing the DACA case after all, and can squeeze it in. But the fact that they haven’t done it already makes it seem very plausible that they’re going to wait until the new term starts in October. That means DACA, in its current form, would remain alive for months — and possibly until June 2020.
That undermines Trump’s boasts that the Supreme Court is going to rule in his favor on DACA. If the White House was expecting to be able to pressure Democrats to accept a more conservative immigration deal in June, because they were worried about DREAMers’ protections expiring imminently, the administration may now be reconsidering.
The problem for the White House is that Democrats also know all this. They know that if they don’t make a deal, current DACA recipients will remain protected from deportation and able to work for several more months at least. So there’s less incentive for them to agree to any compromise — especially one that offers to extend the same protections DACA recipients have now for just a few years, instead of offering them permanent legal status or access to citizenship.
Why Democrats probably won’t be tempted by Trump’s offer
There are three big reasons — above and beyond the fact that Democrats know they have the upper hand on timing — why this deal is unlikely to appeal to them.
All you have to do is listen to what Democratic leaders have been saying so far.
1) Most obviously, the deal’s a non-starter because it still calls for money to fund a border wall. After all, Trump’s unflinching demand for wall money — and Democrats’ refusal to approve it — is the main reason the government is shutdown in the first place.
Week after week, Democrats have signaled that there’s little room for negotiation on this issue. In Democratic leaders last meeting with Trump, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi went so far as to say she wouldn’t agree to fund such a structure even after the government is opened. “The fact is, a wall is an immorality,” she said at a recent press appearance. “It’s not who we are as a nation.”
While Democrats are open to providing more money for border security — allocations that would cover fencing and technology along the southern border — any deal referencing a wall, or something like it, would be a very tough pill to swallow even if it guarantees them some policy wins.
As Vox’s Tara Golshan has explained, Democrats are vehemently opposed to a border wall not necessarily because they oppose physical barriers along the border, but because backing it would be seen as the equivalent of backing one of Trump’s racist campaign promises.
2) Thus far, Democrats have refused to negotiate on border security until the government is reopened. They’ve asked Trump to end the shutdown first and then they’ll talk.
“We Democrats are exasperated. All we want to do is reopen the government,” Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer said during floor remarks this week. “We are happy to debate border security with the president and our Republican colleagues. Happy to. But let’s reopen the government.”
If Democrats adhere to this stance, Trump’s proposal wouldn’t even be up for discussion until the shutdown ends, rendering it a moot point. As of Saturday afternoon, Democratic leadership has given no sign that they are budging from their position. In fact, Senate Minority Whip Dick Durbin reaffirmed it.
3) Democrats have a lot of trust issues with Trump when it comes to any kind of DACA deal. That also throws their willingness to consider this proposal further into doubt.
Much of this distrust stems from a similar effort to negotiate on DACA almost exactly a year ago, when Schumer offered Trump more than $20 billion in border wall funding in exchange for a pathway to citizenship for DACA recipients. At the time, Trump actually appeared open to the proposal and Schumer was optimistic, MSNBC reported.
Just hours after the meeting where they purportedly reached an agreement, however, Trump reneged because the plan wasn’t conservative enough, and ultimately urged Congress to consider another proposal that had far more stringent restrictions on legal immigration. Trump has since shut down numerous other efforts to codify DACA protections as well.
Schumer was heavily criticized by liberal activists for his concessions on wall funding last January, an offer he wound up retracting, and it’s unlikely he and Pelosi would be willing to take on that kind of heat unless they were certain a deal would not only be guaranteed, but also ensure that Democrats walk away with other significant victories.
“That’s what we offered last time and the President reneged on his offer,” Sen. Patty Murray, the third-ranking member in the Democratic Senate conference, told Vox last week, when asked about the possibility of a trade that includes wall money and a permanent path to citizenship for DACA recipients. “We don’t know what he wants.”
Where talks could go from here
Trump’s decision to offer up an explicit proposal does put some pressure on Democrats, who’ve thus far been rejecting a more theoretical suggestion of a DACA deal. His announcement doesn’t necessarily push them to accept this specific deal, but it is meant to create the impression that the president is trying to negotiate, putting some onus on Democrats to respond.
They seem ready to. Earlier on Saturday, The New York Times’s Julie Hirschfield Davis reported that Democrats had plans of offering a concession of their own. In the coming week, House Democrats intend to pass a spending bill that will include an additional $1 billion to address border-security needs, like improving infrastructure at ports of entry and hiring immigration judges.
As The New York Times’s Maggie Haberman reported, White House officials think Trump’s new proposal could potentially pass the Senate, presumably with the help of moderate Democrats. Currently, Republicans, who have a 53-47 majority in the upper chamber, would need seven Democrats to join them to advance it. As Trump noted in his speech, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell intends to bring the proposal to a floor vote this week, a somewhat confusing move since McConnell has said he isn’t interested in taking votes on spending bills that don’t have the support to pass.
It’s highly unlikely that enough Democrats would be willing to peel off from their caucus in support of wall funding, though some have been open to it in the past. Ahead of the midterms, a subset of vulnerable red-state Democrats including Sens. Joe Manchin and Jon Tester said they would back Trump’s border wall and other lawmakers have previously supported a DACA trade for border security.
At the same time, Trump’s willingness to allow any form of relief for DACA recipients is producing a backlash from the conservative influencers who Trump usually trusts to speak for his “base”:
Trump proposes amnesty. We voted for Trump and got Jeb!
— Ann Coulter (@AnnCoulter) January 19, 2019
Trump has a history of backing out of immigration compromises once he feels the heat from his base. It’s not clear whether that will happen now that he’s committed to this deal in a “major announcement.” But it’s also not clear how the deal will lead to an end to the shutdown if, instead of building support for the proposal, the White House is losing it.