Nearly two dozen legislators joined the president at the White House on Tuesday for what was supposed to be a private meeting to work out a deal that could decide the fate of millions of immigrants who were brought to the U.S. as children. It was one that members and senators on Monday afternoon had said would be pivotal. Talks on the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program had stalled as legislators on both sides dug in their heels, and they needed the president to offer clarity on the path forward to restart the process.
What the meeting turned into, though, was a roughly 50-minute chitchat live on camera between congressional Democrats, Republicans, and the president about their feelings regarding immigration policy. At the end of the gabfest, all parties insisted that it had been productive in terms of setting “parameters” for a final DACA bill, or at least emphasizing the “urgency” of completing the task.
Now all they have to do is reach a consensus on the status of millions of immigrants, the prospect of a massive border wall, several other key immigration policies, the timing of such a decision, and the procedural vehicle for getting it passed.
How hard could it be?
During the meeting, the president seemed lost in some of the legislative lingo. This was, just maybe, Democrats’ intention—a means of getting the president to commit on camera to a policy he doesn’t actually support.
California Sen. Dianne Feinstein, most notably, offered a suggestion to the president.
“What about a clean DACA bill now,” she asked, “with a commitment that we go into a comprehensive immigration reform procedure” later?
“I have no problem,” the president responded. “We’re going to come up with DACA, and then we could start immediately on the phase two, which would be comprehensive.”
A “clean DACA bill,” in congressional parlance, means one that would confer some sort of legal status to DACA beneficiaries (or the broader population of Dreamers) and nothing else. House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, picking up on the fast one Feinstein had just pulled on the president, inserted himself for emergency cleanup.
“Mr. President, I think you need to be clear here,” he said, insisting that the president also wants border security in the bill.
“But I think that’s what she’s saying,” Trump said. McCarthy asked Feinstein to clarify, and Feinstein said that she believed border security would best be dealt with in the “phase two” of comprehensive immigration reform. By the end of the meeting, Trump had gotten the memo and explained that in his mind, a “clean DACA bill” means a DACA bill that includes all of the things he wants, including beefed-up border security.
Once the cameras were kicked out, members had a little bit of private time to fix up their talking points before they faced reporters.
All parties—the administration, along with congressional Democrats and Republicans—insisted afterward that this extraordinarily productive session had been useful in setting the “parameters” of the bill they would now have to write. It would deal with four areas: DACA beneficiaries (and perhaps the status of the larger undocumented immigrant pool), border security, the diversity visa lottery program, and “chain migration” (or family sponsorship visas).
The strategy, which could hold intact for a whole seven or eight hours before breaking down into partisan squabbles, is to divide what is traditionally comprehensive immigration reform into two parts: the first dealing mostly with the undocumented population and border security, and the second to-be-determined phase dealing with legal immigration, like an overhaul of visa distributions and guest-worker programs. Setting these parameters, as Georgia Sen. David Perdue told reporters, is useful in avoiding some of the “mission creep” that frequently overtakes even the narrowest of immigration-related legislation. They also see dividing the debate into two piecemeal bills as more likely to succeed than the “comprehensive” approach that’s already failed several times this century.
So there’s agreement on the parameters. But what about the policy? What about the timeline? And what about the process?
Take the first of the four areas: addressing the DACA population. What is the solution for that? Is it allowing only DACA beneficiaries to stay, or the broader Dream Act population? Or, since “phase one” is supposed to cover the issue of undocumented immigrants, will it address the entire 11 or 12 million undocumented immigrants in the country? Will the fix confer legal status or a path to citizenship?
Does border security entail a wall? Democrats, like New Jersey Sen. Bob Menendez, have been saying they’re fine with funding replacements for existing fencing but aren’t keen on mass spending for new wall construction. The president seems to want between $1.6 billion and $18 billion for either 70 miles or nearly 1,000 miles of wall construction. Democrats believe the proper outlay for new wall construction should be, oh, zero dollars.
On “chain migration,” there are divisions even among Republicans about how far to curtail family-based visas. Some immigration hawks want to limit the sponsorships available to all immigrants; others think the limitations should only apply to Dreamers. The broader question is how far U.S. immigration policy should move away from such practices and towards a merit-based immigration system.
As for the diversity visa lottery, some Democrats could be open to ending the program, but then it’s a matter of “what other purposes would those visas be used for,” as Menendez told reporters. Some senators have discussed limiting the diversity lottery in exchange for extending “temporary protected status” protections, like those that the administration stripped from Salvadorans on Monday.
Knotty policy questions aside, there’s also no agreement on when this needs to be done by. And that brings serious political considerations—like the possibility of a shutdown—into play.
Republicans after the meeting insisted that the deadline for resolving this issue is March 5, when DACA is set to fully expire. Democrats, though, believe that it’s Jan. 19, the deadline for the next spending bill.
During his Tuesday press conference, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer stated that the DACA deal must be part of such a must-pass bill, since the House can’t be trusted to call up any immigration bill on its own that might contain “amnesty.”
“The only must-pass bill that we seem coming down the road between now and March 5 is this [Jan. 19 spending] bill,” Schumer said. “So we continue to believe—insist—that it be in this bill.” Schumer wouldn’t comment, though, on whether he would whip Democratic senators to vote “no” against a spending bill that didn’t contain it, merely saying that “we expect it to be in the bill.”
So, how productive was the meeting? Basically, senators determined that they wouldn’t decide all of American immigration policy in the bill they hope to wrap up soon. They just have to work out a bipartisan compromise on four tangled areas. Then they have to figure out a way to avoid a government shutdown over the issue in the next 10 days. A clean process, just as the president wants.
One more thing
You depend on Slate for sharp, distinctive coverage of the latest developments in politics and culture. Now we need to ask for your support.
Our work is more urgent than ever and is reaching more readers—but online advertising revenues don’t fully cover our costs, and we don’t have print subscribers to help keep us afloat. So we need your help. If you think Slate’s work matters, become a Slate Plus member. You’ll get exclusive members-only content and a suite of great benefits—and you’ll help secure Slate’s future.