Democrats face a political challenge ahead if they cut a deal to protect “Dreamers” this month: explaining how they gave President Donald Trump the “wall” their party faithful loathe.
Republicans and Democrats agree that increased border security — and something the president can say fills his wall requirement — is likely to be a part of any agreement to stop the deportation of more than 800,000 recipients of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals Program.
Democrats counter that additional physical barriers along the border with Mexico wouldn’t necessarily be the same as the massive, endless wall Trump vowed to build. But they’re up against a base that doesn’t want to give Trump a single victory, much less one on a wall they say is patently racist and a waste of money.
So let the euphemism battle begin.
“A wall is more an ego trip for the president than an effective use of resources,” Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., told McClatchy.
“(Trump) can call it anything he wants,” Blumenthal added, but he said Democrats would support only smarter border security, such as improved surveillance in the form of drones and border personnel.
At a White House meeting with Republican and Democratic members of Congress Tuesday, Sen. Dick Durbin, D- Ill. told Trump he would find Democratic support on some elements of border security.
Rep. Steny Hoyer, D-Md., suggested after the meeting that Trump was flexible. He said Democrats support border security, “which means many things to many people and maybe different things to different people.”
Hoyer said Trump himself mentioned fences and technology.
“It was clear in the meeting that ‘wall’ did not mean a structure,” said Hoyer, the second-ranking House Democrat. “The president uses ‘wall’ for border security … I think he thinks they’re interchangeable.”
And Democrats signaled they could accept some sort of fencing. “If you’re talking about replacing that fencing and strengthening it, maybe that’s possible,” said Sen. Bob Menendez, D-N.J.
Ten Democratic Senate seats are up in states Trump won in 2016. Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., one of the most vulnerable Democrats, cautioned that she’s not yet seen details, but said there was “certainly a border security package I could accept.”
Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., another endangered Democrat, said Trump is “going to call it a wall,” adding, “but I think most of us realize you have to have border security. We need border security. I want border security. Whatever it includes to make the border secure I am going to be for.”
Democrats need a net gain of 24 seats to win control of the House in November. The party has a tougher task in the Senate, where it has to defend 24 of the 34 seats up for election. Two independents up for re-election caucus with Democrats.
Activists on Capitol Hill have spent months pressuring lawmakers not to accept a deal that’s bad for immigrants.
“I’ve never seen the activists push so hard against a deal,” said Eddie Vale, a Democratic activist coordinating immigrants’ rights efforts on Capitol Hill. “The Dreamers are in all the meetings … The pressure is coming for the Democrats from the Dreamers to not cut a bad deal.”
But immigrants’ rights activists concede any eventual DACA agreement will need Trump’s support to make it palatable to Republicans. And Republicans control both the Senate and House.
“If we don’t fight like hell on this, some people in our base are going to say, ‘Why bother?’” said Frank Sharry, executive director of America’s Voice, a leading pro-immigration advocacy group.
At the same time, Sharry said, “We’re operating in a context that’s very challenging. President Donald Trump is going to have to bless a deal, (and) that is a formidable challenge.”
The administration also wants enhanced enforcement measures, including a boost in the number of border agents and an end to family-based or “chain” migration and the diversity visa lottery system. Democrats say they see room to negotiate on a deal that’s primarily border security infrastructure, combined with a pathway to legal status for DACA recipients.
Republicans face their own political risks if they give too much in negotiations. NumbersUSA, a top immigration control group, said that Trump’s focus on border security and giving a lower priority to changes to immigration law was glossing over a top issue to his supporters.
“We don’t oppose building a wall, but that’s certainly not our first priority,” said Eric Ruark, director of research at NumbersUSA. Ruark’s group wants DACA negotiations to focus on a proposal to hold employers accountable for hiring illegal immigrants — above immigration enforcement.
“If the White House backtracks on what they said they’re going to get from a DACA bill, it’s going to have negative political consequences for the president,” said Ruark.
Trump has been anything but clear on what he’ll accept, even on his signature wall.
“Sitting next to that president and listening him explain the wall, it was explained in so many different ways … as to how long is was, what it was like, how tall it was, whether it was really a fence,” Durbin said after the meeting Tuesday.
Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt. suggested an “easy way out” of the stalemate. Trump, he said, promised repeatedly on the campaign trail that Mexico would pay for the wall.
“I know President Trump would never lie about something,” Leahy said sarcastically. “So let’s see how much money they send up and then we can decide what kind of a wall.”
Mexican officials have said they do not intend to pay for a wall.
(Anita Kumar and Emma Dumain of McClatchy’s Washington Bureau contributed to this story.)
© 2018 McClatchy Washington Bureau
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