By ALAN FRAM
WASHINGTON (AP) — An attempt at protecting young Dreamer immigrants from deportation never really had much chance of squeezing into the last bill Congress must pass this election year. That’s why bargainers from both parties were surprised when the White House tried anyway.
The catch: The proposal was being used as a bargaining chip to win more money for the wall President Donald Trump wants to build along Mexico’s. The last-minute attempt by the White House came as bargainers put the finishing touches on a $1.3 trillion spending deal that neared final congressional approval on Thursday, participants and observers of the budget negotiations said this week.
The immigration talks failed, and Trump ended up getting only $1.6 billion for his wall and other border-security proposal, an amount that would pay for about a year’s worth of work on the project. That made it unlikely Congress would act this year to renew the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, or DACA, or that Trump would get much more money for his wall. That’s especially true now that Democrats, liking their chances of taking over the House in November’s elections, have become increasingly reluctant to help the president further his policy preferences.
“Until they stop acting like idiots and stop trying to use Dreamers as hostages to pass their stupid xenophobic laws and stupid ideas like the border wall, nothing changes,” said Rep. Ruben Gallego, D-Ariz., a member of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus.
Trump took a different view, expressed in a tweet late Wednesday: “Democrats refused to take care of DACA. Would have been so easy, but they just didn’t care. I had to fight for Military and start of Wall.”
By one account, Trump began calling congressional GOP leaders two weeks ago saying he wanted long-term money for his wall and would trade it for a short-term renewal of DACA. Trump ended the program last year, although federal judges have ordered the administration to keep renewing DACA’s two-year permits until legal challenges to Trump’s action are resolved.
A different person said that White House officials said they wanted $25 billion — the full amount Trump has proposed for the wall — in exchange for extending DACA protections through September 2020. When Democrats countered that for that sum they wanted a chance at citizenship for 1.8 million immigrants in DACA, the White House turned it down, undermining the chances that a deal would be reached.
The program, established by President Barack Obama, temporarily shields from deportation a group of immigrants brought to the U.S. illegally as children.
Bargainers also discussed trading a three-year DACA extension for three years of wall money, some sources said, or a five-year extension for five years of wall money.
Some said the administration went further and also wanted Democrats to include more money for enforcement agents and beds for detained immigrants. Trumps officials also sought language that would make it easier to deport immigrants in gangs.
Richard Durbin of Illinois, the No. 2 Democratic leader in the Senate, said he had at one point phoned Ryan and told him of medical students in Chicago having trouble getting residency placements at hospitals because of uncertainty over how long their DACA protections would last.
“He told me he wants to see the problem solved and would try to do it,” Durbin said.
In the end, even a simple compromise — a DACA extension for wall money — had little chance of succeeding amid opposition from both parties and division within the parties.
Large numbers of Republicans don’t want to protect immigrants who are here illegally, and Ryan has been reluctant to call a House vote on any proposal that a majority of GOP lawmakers oppose. Other Republicans have wanted a deal, arguing that immigrants help the economy and that any proposal to boot hundreds of thousands of them who’ve lived here since childhood could harm their re-election chances in November.
“We just blew a great opportunity to do something substantial on immigration,” said Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., who has long sought a bipartisan deal on immigration. “I think the White House overplayed their hand.”
Some Democrats say bringing any stability to immigrants perpetually worried about deportation would be worth the trade-off. But many despise the idea of helping Trump build his wall, even if such assistance came in exchange for a temporary reprieve for DACA immigrants.