Once again President Trump seems to have sucked all the air out of Washington when he reportedly called many nations comprised largely of black and brown people "shithole countries." But even before this latest racist distraction, the immigration debate had already become a shit show.
Fresh off holiday recess, lawmakers returned to the Capitol on Monday under an intense deadline to reach an agreement on the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, known as DACA, to clear the way for a budget deal and avoid shutting down the federal government at the end of next week. On Tuesday, with cameras rolling for nearly an hour, Trump held court at the White House, surrounded by a bipartisan group of lawmakers, cabinet secretaries and a flock of journalists. The two sides seemed to reach a broad agreement on the contours of this impromptu immigration debate.
While many Democrats long maintained they would only accept a clean bill to preserve the status of 700,000 to 800,000 DACA recipients, or Dreamers, party leaders were now signaling a willingness to broaden the scope of the debate. The bipartisan group came away from the meeting, where Trump also called for reinstating earmarks, with a set of four principles for the debate: Protect Dreamers, improve border security, change the diversity lottery program and reconsider which family members of U.S. citizens can migrate to the U.S.
"My head is spinning with all the things that were said by the president and others in that room in the course of an hour and a half," Sen. Dick Durbin (D-IL) told Rolling Stone on Wednesday. "But…the sense of urgency, the commitment to DACA, the fact that the president said to me privately as well as publicly, 'I want to get this done,' I'm going to take him at his word. I need to."
But almost immediately there was confusion on what the president actually wants. In that same meeting, he also endorsed a hardline bill that was introduced the following day by House Judiciary Chairman Bob Goodlatte (R-VA). While the proposal does give DACA recipients a long-term path to citizenship, it also funds Trump's border wall and completely does away with the visa lottery program and ends what the GOP dubs 'chain migration' – allowing green card holders to sponsor family members for permanent residence.
Democrats brushed that bill aside as an unhelpful hyper-partisan wish list, especially because it seems to scrap three of the four areas that the two sides had just agreed on.
Then, on Thursday, a closed-door meeting at the White House appeared to bear fruit. A bipartisan group of six lawmakers – three from each party, including Sen. Durbin – blasted out a joint press release claiming they reached "a bipartisan agreement on immigration."
The deal was to include a path to citizenship for Dreamers, along with $3.3 billion for border security, while also preserving the other immigration programs, including the lottery. "We have been working for four months and have reached an agreement in principle that addresses border security, the diversity visa lottery, chain migration/family reunification, and the Dream Act – the areas outlined by the President," the statement reads. "We are now working to build support for that deal in Congress."
But any sense of victory was short lived. Late Thursday afternoon, reports leaked of Trump’s "shithole" comment. And with Republican hardliners steering much of the debate at the Capitol, it seems building support for that bipartisan deal may prove an uphill battle anyway. In a tweet on Friday morning, Trump mocked the initial agreement as a "so-called bipartisan" deal.
"The American people don't want that style of immigration reform, and they certainly don't want this pine needle of a proposal that was on the table today," Republican Sen. Tom Cotton told reporters after the White House meeting. "It was a joke of a proposal."
Democrats are starting to fear the joke may once again be on Dreamers. But there's still a week to craft a compromise before the government's lights shut off.