WASHINGTON ― President Donald Trump said Tuesday that he is open to a deal that would pair protections for undocumented young people with border security, and would be willing to address “comprehensive immigration reform” later.
But he reiterated that he would not approve any deal with congressional leaders without his signature border wall or restrictions on legal immigration.
“I’d love not to build the wall, but you need the wall,” he told reporters at the White House. “If you don’t have the wall, you can’t have security.”
Trump’s meeting with about 25 members of Congress on Tuesday was part of negotiations over how to protect young undocumented immigrants who came to the U.S. as children ― nearly 700,000 of whom the president put at risk of losing deportation relief when he ended the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program in September.
One of the sticking points in discussing a deal has been how much it should include. Democrats and many Republicans have argued against piling on so many issues that a bill dies under its own weight, but it has been unclear whether Trump feels the same way.
During Tuesday’s meeting, however, Trump narrowed the scope of the current negotiations to four issues: protections for Dreamers, border security, an end to so-called “chain migration” ― a term for family-based visas ― and elimination of the diversity visa lottery program. (In an unusual move, Trump allowed reporters to attend the meeting in its entirety, instead of just the prefatory remarks.)
“I think a clean DACA bill, to me, is a DACA bill, but we take care of the 800,000 people,” Trump said. “But I think, to me, a clean bill is a bill of DACA, we take care of them, and we also take care of security.”
After handling those matters, he said, “we can certainly start comprehensive immigration reform the following afternoon.” He didn’t say exactly what he believes that should entail. In the past, “comprehensive immigration reform” has referred to bills that include legal status for more of the undocumented population, but Trump may have been referring to other immigration matters.
Tuesday’s meeting is unlikely to produce a quick compromise. It included members of a bipartisan group working on protections for Dreamers, but also Republican lawmakers who have put more of a priority on slashing legal immigration.
Even if lawmakers now have instructions on what to address as part of a deal, there are plenty of potential sticking points that could doom both a DACA deal and government spending talks. Democrats want Dreamer protections approved as part of a government spending bill that must pass by Jan. 19 to avoid a shutdown. Experts say it’s necessary to leave time to implement a new policy before Dreamers begin to lose DACA protections in larger numbers after March 5, as thousands already have as a result of Trump’s decision.
Republican leaders in Congress have said Dreamers should be dealt with separately from government spending, and many have argued that immediate action is unnecessary since the “deadline” is March 5.
Sen. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.), who attended Tuesday’s meeting, said Democrats are willing to negotiate on the topics Trump laid out, but it will depend on how they are defined. If the diversity visa lottery is eliminated but those visas are open to other individuals, such as holders of temporary protected status, that could be a solution, Menendez said. Democrats have long said they support border security measures, but not a 2,000-mile wall ― something that Trump, White House officials and other Republicans have acknowledged isn’t possible anyway.
“There are ways to accomplish the goal in which the interest of both sides can be achieved,” Menendez told reporters. “The question is if there’s the right spirit.”
Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), who did not attend Tuesday’s meeting, criticized Trump earlier that day over a report that the administration wants to cut funding for other border security measures ― including ones that have been proven to work, such as surveillance and radar technology ― in order to fund an $18 billion border wall.
Schumer said Democrats were open to border measures that would help, and even fencing where it was deemed necessary. But he said it was wrong “to take away the things that are needed to protect the border for a symbolic and ineffective political gesture.”
“There’s nothing to this but politics,” Schumer said. “President Trump is fighting for an empty symbol rather than smart policy that will actually produce better security at our borders.”
After lawmakers reach a deal to help Dreamers, Democrats would be eager to work on comprehensive immigration reform, Menendez said.
But it’s early in the process to assume knowledge of what Trump would agree to. Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.), who attended the meeting and supports cutting legal immigration in half, told reporters afterward that he still opposes a “comprehensive” approach and believes Trump agrees that immigration matters should be handled in a step-by-step process.
“President Trump has always said that he wants to solve all of the issues of our immigration system, but he also said he knows that Congress has failed three times in 12 years to do that, so it’s better to do a phased approach,” Cotton said. He added later: “But if we get this negotiation right, if we get a solution that is satisfactory to Democrats and Republicans, that will help give confidence for the next round of immigration.”
This article has been updated with additional comments from Cotton and Menendez.