Updated on September 14 at 11:27 a.m. ET
“No deal was made last night on DACA,” President Trump insisted early Thursday morning on Twitter, right before he proceeded to describe what sure sounded like the outlines of a deal with Democrats to codify protections for undocumented immigrants in the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program.
The night before, the president had dined over Chinese food at the White House with Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi. When the working dinner was over, Schumer and Pelosi issued a joint statement proclaiming that the three leaders “agreed to enshrine the protections of DACA into law quickly.” The DACA program shielded undocumented immigrants brought to the U.S. as children from deportation and allowed them to work legally after a criminal background check.
In exchange for securing protections for the “Dreamers,” (the popular term for DACA recipients among immigration activists), Schumer and Pelosi said they would back a legislative package bolstering border security but “excluding the wall”—Trump’s prized proposal that Democrats have declared a nonstarter since before he took office. DACA for border security, no wall. That was the deal.
None of this should come as a surprise to those who have closely watched the fallout from Trump’s decision earlier this month to wind down former President Barack Obama’s DACA program. Trump declared that the protections would end after six months and almost immediately signaled that he wanted to strike a deal to codify them legislatively. His surprising agreement on a fiscal agreement with Schumer and Pelosi—over the objections of his own party—laid the groundwork for a deal on DACA, both by handing leverage to Democrats in the next round of spending negotiations in December and by showing a willingness to work across the aisle for the first time in his presidency.
Of course, Trump and congressional Republicans would need something in exchange for giving Democrats the protection they wanted for “Dreamers.” Schumer and Pelosi made clear early on what they would be willing to offer: additional border security measures—this usually means money—as long as they didn’t include funding or authorization for the massive border wall Trump campaigned on, and which he promised would be paid for by Mexico. This still left a lot of wiggle room for negotiations.
As Schumer pointed out on Wednesday, Democrats have repeatedly agreed to stiffer security at the border as part of immigration deals, including the construction of “fencing” along the southern divide. The comprehensive immigration bill that passed the Senate but not the House in 2013 would have deployed tens of thousands of additional border patrol agents, funded 700 miles of fencing (including double fencing in some areas), and significantly expanded the use of drones and other surveillance technology. Democrats even agreed to boost border security in a smaller spending deal to avert a government shutdown this past May.
In a series of subsequent tweets, Trump essentially confirmed that this would form the basis of an agreement. After denouncing DACA during the campaign and ending it as president, he defended the beneficiaries of the program in glowing words that could have been cribbed from Obama. The border security, he assured, would be “massive” and “BIG.” In another tweet, he slyly redefined what he meant by the wall. “The WALL, which is already under construction in the form of new renovation of old and existing fences and walls, will continue to be built,” the president wrote. In other words, while an agreement for Dreamers may not include a new border barrier, it does not stop work on the fencing that’s been in place for years and which Democrats voted to authorize under President George W. Bush.
Later in the morning, Trump was even clearer: “The wall will come later,” he told reporters as he boarded Marine One. “We want to get massive border security. And I think that both Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer, I think they agree with it.” At a second briefing with reporters upon his landing in Florida, he warned Democrats against trying to “obstruct” the wall indefinitely—something they have made their explicit goal. “It doesn’t have to be here but they can’t obstruct the wall if it’s in a budget or anything else,” Trump said, perhaps referring to the next fight over federal spending in December.
Semantic disputes aside, a deal in Washington is never done until legislation is signed, and in that sense, codified protections for DACA have a long way to go. Even the victory-claiming Democrats acknowledged that significant details must still be ironed out. One aide described the agreement as “general principles.” “We agreed to a plan to work out an agreement to protect our nation’s DREAMers from deportation,” Pelosi told her members in a midnight memo. “Hopefully, we can get this all done in a matter of weeks.”
In a second joint statement on Thursday morning, Pelosi and Schumer said Trump’s tweets were “not inconsistent” with the agreement they reached at the White House. They said:
“We agreed that the president would support enshrining DACA protections into law, and encourage the House and Senate to act.
“What remains to be negotiated are the details of border security, with a mutual goal of finalizing all details as soon as possible. While both sides agreed that the wall would not be any part of this agreement, the president made clear he intends to pursue it at a later time, and we made clear we would continue to oppose it.
“Both sides agreed that the White House and the Democratic leaders would work out a border security package.
Key questions include: What counts as border security? Will Republicans demand additional measures to bolster interior enforcement as well, such as cracking down on visa overstays? And what exact protections will DACA recipients obtain? The DACA program merely shielded them from deportation for a period of time; it did not give them legal status. But Pelosi made clear that Democrats would insist on enactment of the Dream Act, a bipartisan bill sponsored by Representative Lucille Roybal-Allard of California that offers a path to full citizenship for undocumented immigrants who entered the U.S. before turning 18 and meet other requirements.
In an illustration of just how much is left to decide, Trump told reporters in Florida that he was “not looking at citizenship” for DACA recipients. But the legislation that Democrats are pushing would provide exactly that. And shortly before the president spoke, a White House spokeswoman, Lindsay Walters, used the words “legal citizenship over a period of time” to describe what Trump had in mind for the so-called Dreamers.
And then there is the tricky matter of the Republican Party, which by and large has fought the legalization of any class of undocumented immigrants for more than a decade. Unlike his last deal-making meeting with Democrats, Trump didn’t even bother to invite House Speaker Paul Ryan or Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell to dinner on Wednesday night. Sarah Huckabee Sanders, the White House press secretary, defended their exclusion by noting that Trump is “the leader of the Republican Party.” Trump told reporters they were both “on board,” but neither issued an immediate comment. Their support will be necessary to bring any legislation up for a vote, and the forces of opposition quickly mobilized on Wednesday night.
“Unbelievable!” Representative Steve King of Iowa, the House GOP’s most vocal immigration hard-liner, tweeted. “Amnesty is a pardon for immigration law breakers coupled with the reward of the objective of their crime.” He warned that Trump’s base would be “blown up, destroyed, irreparable, and disillusioned beyond repair.” Breitbart, the conservative outlet run once again by Trump’s ousted chief strategist, Steve Bannon, blared in a headline, “Amnesty Don.”
Yet as both Ryan and McConnell recognize, this would be a deal that only Trump could strike. Ryan has backed immigration reform for years and on Wednesday reiterated that deporting the approximately 800,000 Dreamers was not “in America’s interest.” But he no longer has the political standing among conservatives to lead the GOP on the issue. When Ryan reluctantly stepped forward to run for speaker in 2015, immigration was the one hurdle he had to overcome to win the support of the House Freedom Caucus. Within weeks of taking the job, he announced that immigration reform was dead for the remainder of Obama’s presidency. And in recent days, he has hewed closely to Trump’s position, citing additional border security and enforcement as prerequisites for a deal on DACA. Ryan also signaled on Wednesday, in an interview with the Associated Press, that any legislation must win support from a majority of House Republicans to receive a vote—a tough standard that helped kill the chances for immigration reform under his predecessor, John Boehner.
So it will be up to Trump to sell the GOP base and their representatives in Congress on an agreement that many of them would otherwise oppose. He might also have to hammer out details on an agreement that could easily fall apart if left to the warring factions on Capitol Hill. That process began on Thursday. The president and Democratic leader might not have struck “a deal” to help DACA recipients Wednesday night, but it appears they took a significant step forward.